So a movie like The Jane Austen Book Club—in which Firth does not appear, although Jimmy Smits and Hugh Dancy do, either of whom on his own might be enough of a consolation—is something of a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it’s about people who read, which is a rarity in itself. It’s about smart, complicated women the likes of which The Movies usually don’t want to deal with. And it’s not about empire waists and the hotness of Darcy (passing references to him aside).
On the other hand, it doesn’t really have all that much new or intriguing to say about those smart women, about books, in general, or about Austen, in particular. It points out a remarkable yet not, in hindsight, entirely surprising fact: While movies about people clever and engaged enough to enjoy reading for fun may, in theory, be desirable, movies about people actually reading are less than totally enthralling.
I don’t want to overly diminish the very real charms of Club, which features one of the most engaging ensemble casts I’ve seen in a while—and one of the most varied and engaging casts of women in an industry that typically allows one slot to “the girl,” as if one human with breasts could stand in for half the human race. So hurrah for this band of gal pals at various romantic crossroads—contemplating affairs, recovering from divorce, happily or unhappily single (but unable to admit it). They are in love with their work, in love with their lives (mostly), in love with the idea of men (and women) in general.
They are all wildly warm, strange and genuine, funny, exasperating and sharp, the kinds of gals a thinking gal would love to befriend: Maria Bello’s fiercely independent dog trainer; Emily Blunt’s lonely-in-her-marriage schoolteacher; Kathy Baker’s when-I-am-old-I-will-wear-purple romantic adventuress; Amy Brenneman’s despondent divorcée; Maggie Grace’s coltish youngster still discovering love and sex and trust and betrayal. They’re real women, not characters-in-a-movie women. You probably have friends just like these, and that’s a particular joy that few “chick flicks” ever achieve. These women are not stereotypes, and spending time with them is fun and rewarding.
Yet, when they form up a little club among themselves to reread and chew over their favorite author (guess who?), the outcome isn’t as thoroughly engaging as they are just being themselves. “Reading Jane Austen is a freakin’ minefield,” Bello’s Jocelyn states, but the movie never reaches the levels of explosive emotionalism that line would suggest. I don’t know if that’s down to director Robin Swicord, a screenwriter (Memoirs of a Geisha) making her feature-film debut here, or if this is a flaw in the Karen Joy Fowler novel she’s adapting.
I do know this: Fowler made her name as a writer of science fiction and fantasy, but it wasn’t until she published The Jane Austen Book Club that she had a best-seller. Both book and movie feature the male character Grigg (played by Dancy in the movie), a sweet, handsome fellow whom Jocelyn coaxes into joining the reading group in the hopes of getting Brenneman’s Sylvia out of her romantic funk, though Grigg infinitely prefers, ahem, science fiction and fantasy. I also know that the movie—I haven’t read the book—focuses more on “Which gal will end up with Grigg?” and “Who will see what ails her cured by the wisdom of Jane?” than anything else.
I wonder—and this is mere speculation, of course—whether Fowler and/or her movie adaptors didn’t dumb down the inherent intellectualism of Fowler’s writing (I have read some of her science fiction/fantasy) in order to craft a more palatable, more simplistic story for mainstream audiences. I don’t think that’s something Jane would have done.
THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB