The Jane Austen Book Club
Sony Pictures Classics
Now Showing at: Mariemont Theatre, AMC Newport on the Levee, Regal Deerfield and the Showcase Cinemas in Milford, Springdale, and Kenwood Towne Center
Review by: Larry Thomas
After suffering the tortures of the damned, which is an apt description for sitting through the Jane Austen biopic Becoming Jane earlier this year, watching anything remotely associated with Jane Austen had less than zero appeal. So imagine the surprise and joy in discovering that The Jane Austen Book Club is a really terrific movie.
Three friends, one daughter, one stranger, and one guy form a book club of six to read and discuss the six novels of Jane Austen. Each person is assigned to be discussion leader on one of the books. As the title would suggest, their lives seem to parallel events in the Austen tomes, and they all find inspiration, consolation, and enlightenment in the words of the ever-popular author.
Kathy Baker plays a six-time divorcee, who is friends with never- married dog breeder Maria Bello, who is friends with Amy Brenneman, recently separated from her husband Jimmy Smits. The first two come up with the book club idea as something to involve the distraught Brenneman, and keep her focused on anything but her marital problems. Baker encounters Emily Blunt, a high school French teacher with her own set of marital problems, at a Jane Austen film festival, and brings her along, while Brenneman’s daughter, Maggie Grace becomes the fifth member. Bello runs into a charming, literate guy, and invites him to be the sixth member of the club, in hopes that he may become interested in Brenneman.
If it sounds complicated and trite, it’s anything but. Written and directed by Robin Swicord, who previously wrote the scripts for Memoirs of a Geisha and Roald Dahl’s Matilda, her first feature film as a director is full of rich characters and terrific dialogue, all of which are seamlessly woven together. The pairing of NYPD Blue alumni Smits and Brenneman as husband and wife is a good move, and Columbus, Ohio’s Maggie Grace as their daughter, Alexa, is a real find. Alexa is a bit of a daredevil who engages in risky pursuits like skydiving, and seems to run her love life in the same way.
Emily Blunt, from The Devel Wears Prada, is Prudie, the French teacher. She is the most complicated and emotionally distraught of the group. Not only is her marriage crumbling, she also has serious problems with her mother, played in two brief scenes by the great Lynn Redgrave.
British actor Hugh Dancy is Grigg, the Renaissance man who really loves science fiction, but is willing to try Austen to broaden his horizons. He’s charming, rich, and thoughtful…the kind of man every mother wants her daughter to marry.
How this group grows and changes, and copes with their own particular set of problems as channeled through the Austen books is so well done that it propels the film way beyond the “chick flick” category. The women are not all goody-good, and the men aren’t all stereotypically bad. Granted, some of it may be in the “too good to be true” category, but some of the choices made by these characters may surprise you. The skills of writer-director Swicord in working with this terrific ensemble cast make this one of the best feel-good movies of the year.