With the big screen adaptations of Sense and Sensibility, Emma and the Emma inspired Clueless in the late 1990’s, filmgoers saw a resurgence of interest in Jane Austen that has grown increasingly more popular with Oscar contender Pride and Prejudice up to the current year 2008 as PBS dedicates an entire series of new Masterpiece Theatre adaptations of her six classic novels. When Jane Austen’s name began to appear repeatedly in contemporary news publications about a decade ago, one of my favorite creative writing professors mentioned to her amusement that at a recent cocktail party, she’d overheard two men talking and one asked if anyone knew how they could track down Ms. Austen’s agent. Although she wrote novels centuries ago and perished at the young age of 41, there’s just something medicinal, intuitive and timeless about her works that have delighted readers to such an extent that nowadays, it’s impossible to walk into a bookstore without seeing her novels near the front as if they were brand new as well as either her name or a reference to the works in the titles of contemporary chick lit offerings.
Take for example, Karen Joy Fowler’s bestselling novel The Jane Austen Book Club which in itself became a hot book club favorite and was selected by talented screenwriter Robin Swicord as the source for her first feature length work as a director. No stranger to literary adaptations with her scripts for Matilda, Memoirs of a Geisha or my personal favorite Little Women, Swicord’s hurried, independent film with a thirty day shoot managed to attract talented and award winning stars such as Maria Bello (who was the first to sign on), Emily Blunt, Kathy Baker, Lynn Redgrave, and Amy Brenneman who together crafted a lovely and surprisingly winning little film that actually surpassed Fowler’s source material.
Set in contemporary, fast-paced California with lives lived at a breakneck speed in the technological age, six bibliophiles get together to form a Jane Austen discussion group that will meet up for six months with each person selecting a title to host at their monthly meeting. Initially created as a way to divert the minds of Sylvia (Amy Brenneman) and Jocelyn (Maria Bello) from their recent losses of an unfaithful husband (Jimmy Smits) who left his marriage to Sylvia and dog breeder Jocelyn whose trusty canine sidekick passed away, soon the women realize that the plots of Austen's oeuvre are echoing their own lives and relationships as time passes. Rounding out the club is Allegra (model turned actress Maggie Grace) as Sylvia’s daredevil lesbian daughter who’s always as fast to fall in love as she is to take her latest risk, the free-spirited six-time divorcee Bernadette (Kathy Baker) who lovingly tends to her young friends with the same vigor as she applies to yoga and knitting, neurotic and pretentious high school French teacher Prudie (Emily Blunt), and our adorably comedic token male Grigg (Hugh Dancy) as a science fiction lover who joins the club to get closer to an oblivious Jocelyn.
Despite having such an impressive ensemble cast with enough plot to cause a few characters to get lost in the shuffle, which led to imaginative production design and costuming choices to augment their personas, The Jane Austen Book Club is a richly crafted film that succeeds where similarly themed works like Ya-Ya Sisterhood or How to Make an American Quilt failed by offering women with whom viewers can actually relate who find themselves trying to cope in easily identifiable situations.
Although as an NYPD Blue fan I enjoyed seeing Brenneman and Smits together onscreen again, I was riveted by the performances of Emily Blunt and Hugh Dancy. Blunt nearly steals the film as the heartbreaking perfectionist Prudie and it’s in her subtle nuances along with the winning charm of Hugh Dancy’s Grigg that makes the film rise above traditional chick flick fare. I think I speak for most of Austen's enthusiasts when I say that a man who has read Austen for fun and not for school is a man we'd all like to meet. Perhaps though the film’s greatest achievement comes in making viewers want to scour their bookshelves to dust off Pride and Prejudice and the other novels discussed for yet another reread.
A film that makes one want to read a book? Of course that success can only be had with the craftsmanship of a remarkable writer and if her first directorial effort is any indication, we will be treated to more fascinating films from the talented Robin Swicord for years to come. While it may be impossible to track down Ms. Austen's agent, something tells me that Ms. Swicord's agent will be busy for a long awhile.