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Reviews » Theatrical Reviews » The Jane Austen Book Club
The Jane Austen Book Club
Sony Pictures // PG-13 // October 5, 2007
Review by Brian Orndorf | posted October 5, 2007 | E-mail the Author
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After decades of writing high-profile screenplays ("Memoirs of a Geisha," "Little Women"), Robin Swicord finally found her opportunity to direct with "The Jane Austen Book Club." It's a film of immense comfort and formula, but that doesn't discount its sense of community and personality. It also demonstrates that with more practice, Swicord is going to be a lovely filmmaker.

To combat the fast-lane world, Bernadette (Kathy Baker) has assembled a book club devoted to the writings of Jane Austen and her world of unrequited love and happy endings. By inviting her loner friend Jocelyn (Maria Bello), recent and wrecked divorcee Sylvia (Amy Brenneman), Sylvia's lesbian daughter Allegra (Maggie Grace), fussy acquaintance Prudie (Emily Blunt), and potential suitor Grigg (Hugh Dancy), the club becomes a community brimming with ideas and moral support. Over the course of six Austin books, the club transforms into a familial unit that uses Austen as their ethical guide.

"Austen" opens with a montage of life's frustrations, putting into clear focus the daily rituals of madness we engage in to make it from morning to night. It's an anxious way to open the film (my skin was crawling), but it sets an appropriate tone for the picture, which seeks to stop life and appreciate the fantasy world of books.

Strip everything else away from "Austen," and you have a film that values the literary mind. It's rare to have a feature even reference a book much less create an entire narrative around love of the paged game, and "Austen" finds a unique tone of literacy where nothing is more exciting in life than getting to the next Austen novel, or recommending a book that finds a way into the fellow reader's heart. For these characters, this is their joy.

In adapting Karen Joy Fowler's best-selling novel, Swicord has stuck closely to the companionship angle of the story, while also attending to the romantic inclinations and life disappointments of the main characters. It's an uneasy mix of drama and comedy, simply because there's too much story here for a 100-minute movie. Swicord scoots around the film tending to each subplot and requisite emotion, but often the effort just isn't enough, leaving the pain of Allegra's failed relationship bluntly resolved, Prudie's struggles with her destructive hippy mother an incomprehensible haze, and losing the crash of Grigg's relationship bewilderment. These are minor hiccups, but noticeable ones in a picture that assumes so much expositional burden.

"Austen" is a stronger picture in the intimate moments between characters, where the actors can shed the burden of acting and simply play off each other as humans. Swicord finds the heart of the picture here, where the club members share their feelings on Austen and her intentions, drown their sorrows in Whole Foods wine, and hope to correct their mistakes. There's so much comedic contrivance to "Austen" (Swicord shows her inexperience with every stab at laughs or coincidence) that the human moments tend to leap off of the screen out of a sheer desperation to survive.

"The Jane Austen Book Club" is nearly epic in the fashion it tells a story over a year, corralling the growth of the characters as they live and breathe these iconic books, slowly assuming the roles they spend much of their time debating the reality of. It's a sprawling story of heartbreak and friendship, and while it doesn't pack true passion, it has a fireside, knitted-sweater charm about it that creates an affable viewing experience.


For further online adventure, please visit brianorndorf.com
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