The Jane Austen Book Club


Rating 2½

Directed by Robin Swicord

Written by Robin Swicord, based on the novel by Karen Jay Fowler

Kathy Baker (Bernadette), Maria Bello (Jocelyn), Hugh Dancy (Grigg Harris), Amy Brenneman (Silvia Avila), Maggie Grace (Allegra Avila), Emily Blunt (Prudie Drummond), Marc Blucas (Dean Drummond), Jimmy Smits (Daniel Aliva), Kevin Zegers (Trey), Lyn Redgrave (Mama Sky), Nancy Travis (Cat), Parisa Fitz-Henley (Corinne), Gwendoline Yeo (Dr Samantha Yip) and Miguel Nájera (Señor Obando)

When Bernadette, who has been married and divorced six times, meets Prudie, a young and somewhat priggish French teacher, at a Jane Austen film festival, she decides they should form a book club devoted exclusively to Jane Austen, with one member for each of Austen’s six novels. She chooses her friends Jocelyn and Silvia – and Silvia’s daughter Allegra, initially coming along with some reluctance, simply to support her mother, who is still coming to terms with the breakdown of her marriage. Hopes that Silvia’s husband Daniel would be the sixth member of the group are dashed when they separate, but Jocelyn brings Grigg, an enthusiastic science fiction fan, to the first meeting, hoping to hook him up with Sylvia. Grigg agrees to read Jane Austen if Jocelyn will, in turn, read the science fiction author Ursula K Le Guin. With each book, the lives and loves of the six members of the club seem to increasingly match those of various characters and stories.


Karen Jay Fowler is an author who, prior to the publication of her 2004 novel ‘The Jane Austen Book Club’, was best known for writing science fiction and fantasy with a slant towards feminism. ‘The Jane Austen Book Club’ incorporates the sci-fi theme through the character Grigg Harris, who Jocelyn first encounters in a hotel where a Buffy the Vampire Slayer convention is taking place. The previous writing credits of Robin Swicord, who directed the film and wrote the screenplay, include the films ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’, ‘Matilda’ and ‘Practical Magic’, a film that is often derided, but which I like very much.

It was the cast, including Maggie Grace, Marc Blucas and Nancy Travis, all of whom I like a lot, that first pricked my interest in watching this film. I am not unfamiliar with the work of Jane Austen, having read the six novels more than twenty-five years ago, and having seen various film and television adaptations. At least twice in the film reference is made to film adaptations of the novels being no substitute for the real thing, which holds a kind of irony somehow.

The film is very nicely put together and the acting, as might be expected, is excellent. It is an expertly crafted ensemble piece. Of course, it is very contrived and thinking about it afterwards, I have found myself becoming slightly irritated at the memory, more than anything else. While I was watching the film I was struck by the very artificial nature of the dialogue. Do people really conduct conversations like this? Within the constructs and confines of a book club gathering, perhaps, but surely not otherwise.

Prudie is, perhaps, the character I struggled most to understand. She is trapped in an unhappy marriage, not because she and Dean do not love each other, but, so it seems, simply because they have different intellectual needs. Dean is a sports fan who does not read books. Prudie obsesses on a student at the school where she teaches, a good looking boy who is playing the lead role in a school play, and appears to be heading towards having an affair with him. The suggestion that, when it seems their marriage has hit rock bottom and there is no way back, it simply takes Dean reading ‘Persuasion’ in one single all-night session, while Prudie sleeps in his arms, to put everything right, is more far-fetched than any of the science fiction referenced in the film.

It also seems a little odd that Prudie, a scholar of French language, who randomly throws rather pretentious sentences spoken in French into her conversations, and, judging by her appearance, is a follower of French fashion and style, has never been to France, but I guess that is not entirely beyond the realms of possibility.

I am not sure exactly how to interpret the reason for Allegra’s attraction to extreme pursuits (skydiving, wall climbing), usually resulting in injuries requiring hospitalisation, and how, or so it would seem from the way it is presented to us in the film, this relates to the fact that she is a lesbian. What did work very well was her initial barely concealed antipathy towards Prudie and her exasperation at Prudie’s decidely neurotic and precious manner. I am surprised that we don’t see more of Maggie Grace, whose performance here extends beyond the wounded vulnerability that was her stock-in-trade in the television series ‘Lost’ and in the remake of ‘The Fog’.

Jocelyn attempts to play matchmaker and bring Grigg and Sylvia together, despite the fact that it is blatantly obviously from the very first moment they meet that Grigg is strongly attracted to her, something that we seem to be required to believe she doesn’t notice. Grigg thinks she is trying to hook him up with Allegra, something that confuses him even more when he discovers that Allegra is a lesbian. I have no idea how he could possibly have come to this conclusion. Eventually, Jocelyn becomes jealous of the attention she thinks Grigg is giving to Sylvia and she and Grigg spend the book club gatherings sniping at one another. It was, I thought, a little over-cooked and heavy-handed.

These criticisms aside, it was a very enjoyable film. However, the ending was far too neatly sugary and sentimental for me and for that I have lowered my rating from a three to two-an-a-half.

Each of the main six characters in the film is related to one of the six novels. Allegra is ‘Sense and Sensibility’; Bernadette is ‘Pride and Prejudice’; Grigg is ‘Northanger Abbey’ (which is my favourite book of the six); Jocelyn is ‘Emma’; Prudie is ‘Mansfied Park’; Sylvia is ‘Persuasion’. Although I think they can each be related to more than one character and more than one book, Allegra is principally Marianne in ‘Sense and Sensibility’, Bernadette is Mrs Gardiner in ‘Pride and Prejudice’, Jocelyn is the title character in ‘Emma’, Prudie is Anne Elliot in ‘Persuasion’ and Sylvia is Fanny Price in ‘Mansfield Park’. Grigg is an amalgamation of several male characters in the books.

‘The Jane Austen Book Club’ has a 65% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes from 109 reviews. The reviews, although more favourable than not, were mixed. Tim Robey, reviewing the film for the Daily Telegraph newspaper, thought it, “Offers a distinctive vision of Hell – a plane of being where there are only six novels that matter, and they’re consulted like all-purpose agony aunts. There’s no relationship crisis in this ensemble comedy-drama that Jane can’t solve, if you buy into the film’s therapeutic brand of chick-lit-crit.”

The film had a worldwide box office gross a little over $7 million.

Review posted 24 July 2009


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