According to Judge Diane Wild, "Jane Austen" and "Merchant Ivory" go together like a cup of warm milk and a comfy pillowtop mattress.
"We are not learning parts, we are learning to be."—member of the Manhattan Encounter Theater Laboratory
Many years ago, after we'd watched Gattaca together, my brother asked me what I thought. I responded that I found it a bit boring. "But you like boring movies," he responded.
What does Gattaca have to do with Jane Austen in Manhattan, you ask? Absolutely nothing. But my brother was only partly joking. I like quiet movies, movies that are driven by character rather than plot. Jane Austen in Manhattan is both those things, but sometimes quiet and light on plot just adds up to dull. I expected quietly amusing, or quietly interesting, and got quietly lulled to sleep instead. I tried to watch it three times before finally managing to sit all the way through it. The movie's two-hour running time feels much longer—and that's two hours of my life I could have used for sleeping.
Facts of the Case
The story behind the story is unfortunately more remarkable than the movie itself. As in the movie, a play written by Jane Austen when she was child was auctioned off at Sotheby's. In real life, London Weekend Television acquired the rights to the as-yet unseen manuscript Sir Charles Grandison and offered it to producer-director team Ismail Merchant and James Ivory (Howards End). They agreed to film it—again, before they read it. When Ivory finally read the script, he discovered that a play written by a 10-year-old is the work of a child, even if that child grew up to be a great writer. It was also unfinished. So writer and frequent Merchant-Ivory collaborator Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (A Room with a View) did a Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation) and wrote about adapting seemingly unadaptable source material.
Which brings us to the movie. Pierre (Robert Powell, The Italian Job (1969)), the leader of a cult-like theater troupe, has convinced George Midash to buy the rights to the play and to allow his Manhattan Encounter Theater Laboratory to stage an avant-garde production. The Laboratory members live communally, give all their money to Pierre, and rehearse in an attic with bare mattresses in the corner. The star of Pierre's play is Ariadne (Sean Young, Fatal Instinct), who has left her actor husband Victor to be with Pierre.
"He's the most destructive person I've ever met, Pierre," says Lilliana Zorska of her former protégé. Zorska (Anne Baxter, All About Eve: Special Edition) heads a more traditional theater company. She wants to convince Midash to allow her to stage the play "the way Jane herself would have wanted it"—along the lines of A Room with a View or Howards End, ironically. Not content with mounting a rival production, Zorska and Victor team up to try to steal the script, grant money, and Ariadne for their version.
In her first movie role, Sean Young shows a sweetness and naïveté I don't normally associate with her. But overall, the acting is mannered and stiff, and Powell doesn't have nearly the magnetism required to be such an influence on all the other characters.
There is some character development here, but none of the people involved are very likeable or interesting. Pierre is both the protagonist and antagonist and manipulates the others, whose personalities and actions are a strange blend of the ridiculous and the boring.
The upper-crust types who throw their money at Pierre and Lilliana's theater productions are one-note stereotypes. There is an odd satirization of the arts here (probably intentional but I wouldn't swear to it), since the movie itself shows all the elements of what is being satirized. It has a fine pedigree, but it comes across as a pretentious puff of hot air.
The movie's structure throws in flashbacks and scenes of the play as if it were filmed, but these non-linear elements served only to make the plot incoherent when added to my failing efforts to stay awake for the 111 minutes of this prolonged, unfunny theatrical in-joke.
There are protracted scenes of the techniques each theater company uses to develop their actors—long, slow scenes of actors pretending they are gazing at an extremely small object, then that they are growing to enormous proportions, for example. There are other long, slow scenes of actors rehearsing various scenes of the play. And long, slow scenes of watching people walk down streets and up stairs and down hallways. These elements add up to a long, slow movie.
Jane Austen in Manhattan was shot on 35mm for television, so it is presented here in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. The credits look like the titles of M*A*S*H and the production values might have come from the Korean-war era, too. The DVD transfer is almost on par with an old VHS tape—there are distracting artifacts and grain, and the washed-out colors make for a murky-looking presentation. The mono sound is shaky, with harsh but reasonably clear dialogue and musical numbers occasionally distorted with background noise.
The only extra is a nice addition—James Ivory's first film and master's thesis, the documentary short "Venice: Theme and Variations."
Part of The Merchant Ivory Collection set of DVD releases, which so far includes many of their lesser-known films such as Shakespeare Wallah and Maurice, this DVD was produced in association with The Criterion Collection. But don't expect the quality of Criterion releases, either in content or technical quality.
It's easy to believe that because the words "Jane Austen" and "Merchant Ivory" appear together here that this is a period drama of the kind they often do so well. Jane Austen in Manhattan is early Merchant Ivory, and bad Merchant Ivory. It's a contemporary trifle that attempts to show the weird and wonderful world of New York theater life, while only managing to be tired and tedious.
Zzzzzzzzzzzz (shhh, don't wake the judge.)
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Home Vision Entertainment
• "Venice: Themes and Variations"
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