The explosion of the "chick lit" phenomenon is probably largely to blame (if indeed this is blameworthy), but there's definitely been a resurgence in interest in Jane Austen in recent years. Off the top of my head, in the last decade or so we've had Bride & Prejudice, Pride & Prejudice, and Becoming Jane on the big screen, and of course the loosely Austen-based Bridget Jones movies. There have been countless television adaptations, and the BBC bio piece Miss Austen Regrets (far superior to Becoming Jane, I thought). Writer-director Robin Swicord's The Jane Austen Book Club (adapted from a novel by Karen Joy Fowler) is yet another Austen-themed film, albeit one taking quite a different tack from the others.
Book Club revolves around five women and one man who decide to form a book club where they will discuss each of Austen's six novels. Along the way, the characters' personal lives begin to loosely resemble scenarios in the novels they're reading. I thought this was a very cutesy premise, and I largely expected a frothy, cloying, and ultimately formulaic romantic comedy. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised, not by any lack of chick-flick convention, of which there was plenty, but by the overall thoughtfulness of the script and characterisations. Strong performances and well-written dialogue largely overshadowed the run-of-the-mill nature of many of the plotlines, resulting in a rare film, by Hollywood standards anyway.
Probably my favourite part of the film were the discussion scenes for the six novels because - not necessarily for the content of the discussion, but for the way they were written and performed. Although some of the discussion was very interesting and the characters made some keen observations, these nuggets were delivered in such short random bursts that the ideas were rarely fully explored. Yet that's exactly what I liked about it. Real group conversations have people throwing out various tidbits without any real structure, it's often choppy, and people constantly interrupt and cut each other off. The discussions in Book Club unfolded like real-life group conversations, and there was something satisfying about sitting back and eavesdropping on the characters' talks. Each characters' contributions to the discussion revealed pieces of themselves, and I felt like I wanted to jump in and have my say, too.
Also refreshing was the character of Grigg (Hugh Dancy), the lone male in the book club. Aside from being easy on the eyes and having an attractive penchant for showing up to book club in his cycling suit, Grigg is a very rare character in Hollywood film: a man that likes women. Obviously I'm not just referring to romantic interest; Grigg is a rarity because he actually enjoys the company of women and doesn't mind being the only guy in the group. And he's not gay. If Hollywood were to be believed, such men simply do not exist, which of course is completely ludicrous. Personally, I'm so bored of the man-bashing/woman-bashing, battle of the sexes nonsense that clogs so many romantic comedies, especially the tired way in which it's usually portrayed. Here's a novel concept, maybe men and women are not alien species and can in fact get along perfectly well and have intelligent, poignant discussions about literature, or whatever, without resorting to petty stereotyping. I'd like to think that this will set a trend and we won't have to watch the same beaten ground being trod on over and over, but this is probably wishful thinking.
There are lots of other little victories in Book Club. Allegra (Maggice Grace) is a lesbian who is neither a scary butch ballbuster nor a fetishized vixen - how many times has a character like her shown up in a conventional romantic comedy? Bernadette (Kathy Baker) is one of the most truly warm and compassionate characters I've encountered onscreen. In her short and sweet scenes she always manages to find the best in everyone she meets; her presence is uplifting and never overbearing.
My biggest sticking point (aside from the obvious "awwww" conclusions of some of the romantic plotlines) is the character of Prudie (Emily Blunt). On one hand, I was very impressed with Emily Blunt's performance of the painfully repressed Prudie (her name is the obvious clue). Blunt plays her with such carefully considered restraint that it hurts, and it's strange to encounter such a mannered, rigidly unhappy character in an otherwise freely emotional feel-good story. It really seems like Prudie is in the wrong film, and as such, her story is awkwardly out of place and feels the least believable. Severely chic with her prim pageboy bob and crisp minidresses, Prudie verges on being a character from something darkly erotic like Belle de Jour. Except that she's supposed to be a high-school teacher, which makes the whole simmering-sexuality-beneath-a-straitlace
Still, the good outweighs the highly questionable in Book Club, just as the (mostly) quality parts outweigh the squishy whole. The Jane Austen Book Club doesn't attempt anything revolutionary, but for an unassuming film about people discussing books, there are sizable chunks of the film working to break down stereotyping. Swicord is not necessarily always successful in doing so, but at least she made an effort not to produce empty fluff. The Austen angle is sweet, but to my surprise and delight, it was only a charming enytryway into the lives of some truly engaging characters.
. m u s i c .: Graham Coxon