Judge Christopher Kulik wanted to start a Jane Austen book club at DVD Verdict, but Chief Justice Michael Stailey did that years ago.
What would Jane do?
It's all too obvious that Karen Joy Fowler is a Jane Austen devotee; according to the author, "Each of us has a private Austen." Many of her novels and stories have a feminist or science fiction arc. However, it was her 2004 book The Jane Austen Book Club which became a New York Times bestseller. While it may seem to easy to dismiss it as a little "chick lit" book, Fowler has managed to write characters that are witty, sharp, and ironic…just like those found in Austen's books. Plus, the book moves along at a smooth pace, complemented by flashbacks which flesh out the characters, while at the same time gathering them together every month for six months to discuss a different Jane Austen text. If you're an Austen fan, the book is a must read.
As for myself, I have only read two Austen novels: Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey, both of which I did enjoy. To some critics, it boggles the mind how Austen is loved in the 21st century. However, the answer is simple: her views on love, marriage, and relationships can still be identified by a contemporary audience, even though much of the author's work was published almost 200 years ago. Plus, in case you haven't noticed yet, adaptations of every single Austen book have come to cinemas for the past 15 years, including BBC versions, theatrical versions, and even modern-day updates, such as Amy Heckerling's Clueless. In 2007, we had Becoming Jane, which showcased a chapter of the author's life, and now we have on DVD and Blu-Ray the adaptation of The Jane Austen Book Club, courtesy of Sony.
Facts of the Case
Five different women—each of whom are dealing with various down periods in their lives—decide to form a book club dedicated to reading all six of Jane Austen's novels: Emma, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, Pride and Prejudice, and Persuasion.
One of the women, Jocelyn (Maria Bello, World Trade Center) meets a producer of science fiction TV shows named Grigg Harris (Hugh Dancy, Evening), and asks him to be the sixth member of the club. The creator—and eldest member—of the group is Bernadette (Kathy Baker, Cold Mountain), who gets dibs on hosting Pride and Prejudice. Sylvia Avila (Amy Brenneman, Judging Amy) is now suffering through a divorce from her husband Daniel (Jimmy Smits, Cane); her lesbian daughter Allegra (Maggie Grace, Lost) is suffering from writer's block, and tries to remedy that through extreme sports. Finally, we have Prudie (Emily Blunt, The Devil Wears Prada), a high school French teacher who is married to a sports-obsessed loser…and finds herself attracted to Trey (Kevin Zegers, Dawn of the Dead), who just so happens to be one of her students.
As they read Austen and meet every month, they soon discover that much of the drama in their lives parallels the drama in the author's novels, and soon they are able to think like the author to make their lives better.
I'm sure many readers of this review are sounding the "chick flick" alarm, though I think that is rather unfair. Yes, I'm firmly aware that the primary characters are women. Yes, I know this film was written and directed by a woman. And, yes, yes, yes, I know this film is based on a novel written by a woman who, in turn, is celebrating books written by a woman who lived in the 19th century. But, hey, so what? Let me put it this way: whether you are male or female, it doesn't matter if you have never read Jane Austen; you can still enjoy this film, even though it includes many standard romantic comedy trappings. Screenwriter Robin Swicord (Little Women, Memoirs of a Geisha) makes an impressive feature film debut and, naturally, she also wrote the script, which is more faithful to Fowler's book than you might expect. She's fearless in providing some of Fowler's more mature themes (i.e. lesbianism) and she solidifies the reasoning why modern-day readers love Austen so much.
Most importantly, Swicord's irresistible ensemble cast provides endless charm for the viewer. Veteran actress Kathy Baker is particularly memorable as the club's inspiration and storyteller, and Hugh Dancy is immensely likable as the sole male member. Nearly the entire cast is fine, though my favorite would have to be Emily Blunt; her character goes through the biggest emotional obstacles, and Blunt pulls it off beautifully, with those wide, innocent eyes and layered, unpredictable personality. Like Ellen Page and Amy Adams, she is one of those young actresses that she is quickly making a name for herself and she will no doubt win an Oscar sometime in the future. You might also recognize Nancy Travis (So I Married An Axe Murderer) in a bit part as Dancy's older sister; Travis has been largely absent from film since the mid-1990s, as she has been doing television work.
Now, I must confess that this was the first time that I've watched a film on Blu-Ray and, needless to say, I was quite impressed. The 1080p high definition transfer (with AVC MPEG -4 codec) is completely crystal clear, with vibrant colors, well-toned blacks, and flawless flesh tones, adding up to perfect clarity. The audio tracks, including Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround tracks in English and French, have no complaints from me. Subtitles are available on seven languages, and even special subtitles for the audio commentary are provided in Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, and Thai. All I'm saying is that if an HD version of the film comes out, it will be hard to top this glorious package from Sony.
Those who love the film should also love the extras which are included. The best of the bunch is an audio commentary with writer-director Robin Swicord, editor Maryann Brandon, co-producer Julie Lynn, and actors Hugh Dancy and Maggie Grace. (Marc Blucas, who plays Blunt's onscreen husband, Dean, comes in later). The commentary is very entertaining, with Dancy cracking some good jokes, Grace talking about how she felt like she was on a set from Little House on the Prairie, and Swicord talking about all the locations and costumes that were employed. There is also a healthy selection of featurettes including an 18-minute behind-the-scenes segment, a 22-minute perspective on Jane Austen's life, a 12-minute segment on how Swicord adapted Fowler's book, and also a three-minute piece from the Los Angeles premiere. There are also seven deleted scenes and previews for other Blu-Ray releases from Sony.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Purists will no doubt object to certain changes from Fowler's book, including shifting of scenes and adjustments to character ages, though I didn't really have a problem with those. However, I think the film does have one major flaw: the uneven story. Swicord had taken some of the book's subplots and expanded them for no compelling reason, thus making the character sketches slightly more complicated than they have to be. Surprises are minimal, and some of the story turns—like when Blunt makes a desperate request to her husband late in the film—are a little difficult to buy. While I found it amusing that Swicord implied the idea of using Austen's books like literary aphrodisiacs, it just played too heavy a hand for me.
I mentioned earlier about the use of ironies in Fowler's book, which were also translated to the screen. These ironies, such as Jocelyn acting like Emma, and Grigg acting like Mr. Darcy, are ridiculously contrived and you will be able to recognize them a mile away even if you have never picked up an Austen book. I actually liked the idea of the parallels that these character's lives have with characters in the book, though a little more subtlety could have helped. The use of music and songs is acceptable though, sorry Ms. Swicord, but director Paul Thomas Anderson (quick prayer for Best Director) used Aimee Mann's music much more effectively in Magnolia. Last, but not least: the talented Lynn Redgrave (Kinsey) is seriously wasted in the small role of Blunt's insane mother.
Even though the story and script aren't as strong as they could be, the outstanding cast and director's devotion to the material more than compensates. Once again, Sony deserves much credit for giving this non-box office hit a stellar Blu-Ray package, with plenty of extra features and a superior transfer.
What would Jane say? Not guilty, of course. Case dismissed.
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