Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Jane Austen Film Festival

A confluence of circumstances led me to Netflix Becoming Jane and The Jane Austen Book Club in succession. At the same time, my friend Stevie passed along some screeners from the recent PBS Masterpiece broadcast including Sense & Sensibility, Persuasion, Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey and Miss Austen Regrets. Then, to round it all out, I rented Pride and Prejudice (the Colin Firth min-series version) and Emma (starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam). So now I am well-versed in Miss Austen's novels (the movie versions of them, anyway!)--having watched all six (actually I've seen two versions of Sense & Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice...).

Although Jane Austen wrote only six novels during her short life, they are pretty much all the same story. You have either an impetuous, willful heroine (Lizzie Bennet, Marianne Dashwood, Emma Woodhouse, Catherine Morland) or dutiful, sensible heroine (Fanny Price, Elinor Dashwood, Anne Elliot) who comes from a good, but usually impoverished family. Combine with one hero (a mixture of pride, intelligence, good character and money) and throw in an obstacle (either another woman to whom the hero is betrothed or a seemingly more appropriate suitor), add a dash of proper manners, bows and curtsies, eloquent letters, miscommunications, English countryside and formal dances and you've got the basic set-up for every single Jane Austen story.

As the Jane Austen character (played by Anne Hathaway) tells her sister, Cassandra (Anna Maxwell Martin), in Becoming Jane:

Cassandra: How does the story begin?
Jane: Badly.
Cassandra: And then?
Jane: It gets worse. With, I hope, some humor.
Cassandra: How does it end?
Jane: They both make triumphant, happy endings.
Cassandra: Brilliant marriages?
Jane: Incandescent marriages--to very rich men!

Becoming Jane is a good place to start the "Austen Festival"--as it's a fictionalized telling of the author's life as a young woman and her relationship with Tom LeFroy and how it inspired and informed her writing. Hathaway's Austen is supposed to be the Marianne Dashwood to her sister Cassandra's Elinor, but she comes off a bit muted. She is luminous and lovely to look at, but with James Cromwell and Julie Walters playing Jane's parents, Hathaway is a bit outclassed. Still, it has most of the Austen flourishes--gorgeous rural scenery, buttoned up etiquette, English country dances and a dashing hero.

And is Becoming Jane's hero oh so delightfully dashing. James McAvoy is the best thing about the film--adding wit, humor and passion to a somewhat plodding story. I'm also a sucker for the 18th century fashions--the empire waistlines, the bonnets, the cloaks. Becoming Jane plays a bit fast and loose with the facts--yes, there was a flirtation between Miss Austen and Mr. LeFroy. And Jane's sister Cassandra's fiance did die of yellow fever while on a military expedition. Neither of the Austen sisters ever married. But Austen was never known for her romantic heroines during her lifetime; she published anonymously. And it's doubtful the flirtation with LeFroy was the passionate love affair as depicted in the film.

Miss Austen Regrets starring Olivia Williams as Jane Austen in her later years is the perfect follow on to Becoming Jane. Williams portrays Jane as smart, sharp-tongued--although it's often planted firmly in cheek as she indulges in a penchant for teasing and witty barbs. Although Austen wasn't any sort of celebrity during her life, Miss Austen Regrets also takes liberties here with the character of Dr. Charles Haden, a fan of Austen's novels, teasing Jane about the fact that Lizzie Bennett doesn't fall for Darcy until after she sees Pemberley. Indeed! But before we cast Ms. Bennett out as a golddigger, we should keep in mind that Austen's philosophy on love was one of sense (no marriage without financial security!) and sensibility (no marriage without affection!).

Speaking of Sense & Sensibility, I saw both the recent PBS version starring Hattie Morahan and Charity Wakefield as well as the Ang Lee version starring the fabulous Emma Thompson (who also won the Oscar for her adaption of the book for the screen), the gorgeous Kate Winslet, Tom Wilkinson, Hugh Grant and ALAN RICKMAN. I was arguing that I preferred the Ang Lee version to a friend who liked the recent PBS version. "But it has ALAN RICKMAN!" was my most persuasive argument. She sighed. "Well, yes..."

I don't think Charity Wakefield conveys the passionate, tempestuousness of Marianne as well as Winslet did and Morahan (who I recognized for her recent role in The Bank Job while perfectly competent, seems to be channeling Emma Thompson's portrayal of Elinor. You can especially hear it in her vocalization. Still, it's a decent telling of the story of two sisters--one sensible, one sensitive--and their trials and travails leading to their eventual brilliant marriages. Ironically, the sister devoted to "sense" ends up marrying for love, while the sister who champions "sensibility" marries a rich, older man ensuring a life of financial security.

Of the other PBS screeners, I enjoyed Northanger Abbey the best. Felicity Jones plays the plucky Catherine Morland, who's read one too many gothic novels for her own good. Jones reminded me of a British Alexis Bledel--she's simply gorgeous. Mr. Tilney is played by JJ Feild and he's probably the single most significant reason that this was one of my favorites. He's a hottie! The only downside to the production was the casting of William Beck (a ringer for a young John Malkovich) as John Thorpe. You can't believe for one second he would be any competition for Tilney.

Persuasion suffers the reverse problem--its foil (in the person of William Elliot played with aplomb by Tobias Menzies) was by and far more charismatic than its hero (Captain Wentworth played with stick-up-the-ass drippiness by Rupert Penry-Jones). The heroine Anne Elliot, played with subdued grace by Sally Hawkins, is a bit drippy herself. The production also boasts the talents of Rupert Giles (aka Anthony Head) as Sir Walter Elliot and the Queen Borg (aka Alice Krige) as Lady Russell.

Mansfield Park, however, was the worst of the lot. I haven't read the book, but apparently Fanny Price is a dutiful, sensible heroine. Unfortunately, the producers decided to make her a willful, headstrong heroine. And they cast Billie Piper in the lead role. She's an odd looking girl who seems wholly out of place in a period piece. It's boring--I found myself caring little about the characters and the story playing out on the screen and more fascinated with cleaning my bathroom. And I hate cleaning my bathroom!

I didn't get the PBS version of Emma so I settled for the Gwyneth Paltrow version. I enjoyed it. Gwyneth looks lovely throughout and does a pretty decent job with the accent. There are times when she's too nasal, but I got over it. Jeremy Northam is totally hot. Toni Collette and Alan Cumming offer great performances as well. And the costumes by Ruth Myers are so luscious! This Jane Austen story of a young woman who meddles unsuccessfully as a matchmaker has also been modernized in Clueless, but I like the costume dramedy better.

Last, but not least, everyone's favorite Austen: Pride and Prejudice. I saw the Keira Knightley version a couple of years ago in the theater and it has a lot going for it:

1. Keira Knightley is a great Lizzie Bennet. I enjoyed Jennifer Ehle's portrayal, but I think Keira's unconventional beauty is more suitable for Austen's spitfire heroine.

2. Less annoying Mrs. Bennet. Brenda Blethyn is way less shrieky and shrewish than Alison Steadman.

3. Quicker pace. This version clocks in at a little over an hour. The other version is NINE HUNDRED HOURS long! (Actually it's five--it just feels like nine hundred hours.)

The PBS version has a lot going for it as well:

1. Colin Firth.
2. Colin Firth.
3. Colin Firth.

To be honest, Firth's Mr. Darcy mainly just looks pissed off for the entire first half of the series. When he surprisingly asks the lovely Elizabeth to marry him midway through, his little proposal inspires her wrath. Watching, I pretty much wanted him to bugger off as well. The nerve! The second half of the series, he is besotted. I think that's the Mr. Darcy that gets girls swooning. Lots of English dances in Pride and Prejudice. Not so many in Sense & Sensibility. I can't help but wonder how the characters managed to participate in all the verbal jousting without forgetting the steps to their dances. Or the fact that none of the other dancers seem to notice when the hero and heroine are traded barbed jabs at each other...

Last and most definitely least was The Jane Austen Book Club. Ugh! What an insipid movie. It made the PBS version of Mansfield Park look positively Oscar worthy. The synopsis for the film goes: "Six Californians start a club to discuss the works of Jane Austen, only to find their relationships -- both old and new -- begin to resemble 21st century versions of her novels."

Yeah. Not so much. There is an Emma type character but that's about it. And while Emma ended up marrying her cousin, who is sixteen years older than she, Maria Bello's Jocelyn ends up with a much younger guy. (But while we're on the subject--what was up with all the May-September relationships in Austen's work? Even ickier was all the slightly incestuous pairings of first cousins. Gack!) Hugh Dancy is definitely Austen hero material, but the ladies of the "Book Club" were pretty pathetic. If you like melodramatic Lifetime channel schlock, this movie is for you. But if you love the dry wit and verbal elegance of Austen's stories, do NOT bother with this movie!

All in all, movies based on Austen's books generally have memorable characters, clever dialogue, great costumes and happy endings--set amongst the morals and manners of 18th century England. What's not to like?


  1. I love this post and the fact that you went through so many of the JA movies that are all over the place. I do beg to differ in one particular. You say that the heroine is from an "impoverished family." I think that's a little extreme. Yes, they didn't have a lot of money, but they very often still kept servants, ate okay, and were accepted as country gentle folk. If you are interested in reading about the author, there's a great book I'm reading now by Claire Tomalin, Jane Austen: A Life. It's one of the best bios I've read in awhile.

  2. Austen herself portrayed her heroines as lacking financially--thus reducing the chances at making brilliant marriages. I agree, it's hard to consider them poor when they had servants--but I guess compared to the Darcys and Bingleys of the world they were.