Tuesday, December 16, 2008

On Jane Day

It's Jane Austen's birthday. We recently saw two of the Austen-themed movies on DVD. Becoming Jane was ostensibly about Austen, puffing up what biographers consider a brief acquaintance into a major love affair. Apart from that, it was somewhat true to Austen's life. We see her madly writing Pride and Prejudice in response to this affair. Though she didn't publish Pride and Prejudice first, she probably wrote the first version of that novel before the first version of her first publication, Sense and Sensibility. She did not write under her own name, and so her identity was unknown to her reading public until after her death. Her family was larger than in the film--in fact, her older brothers helped support her. Though she made some money from her books, it was not enough to make her financially independent.

The movie itself is well done, lush to look at, and despite the fairly predictable romance, it was well written, acted and shot. The Jane of the film was interesting, and her process as a writer was better than the usually embarrassing idea of how a writer writes in films, especially biographies. But it wasn't Jane Austen, and in the end it seemed fairly forgettable. The special features of the DVD are ok, though the Austen bio is mediocre.

So having seen this, I suppose I didn't have particularly high hopes for The Jane Austen Book Club, which had the air of gimmickry in its contemporary story of what I assumed would be those madcap mismatched people and their romantic lives, linked by the slender thread of being fans of Austen. So this film surprised me, and even beyond the pleasant surprise, I really admire in particular the work of Robin Swicord, a veteran screenwriter whose adaptation of the book by Karen Joy Fowler was deft, creative and inspired--and she also directed the film (her first) with great sense and sensibility.

In matching the stories of the characters to Austen novels in often subtle ways, she managed to be truer to Jane than Becoming Jane was. The acting in this ensemble movie was terrific, so together with the writing the characters were absorbing and dimensional. The tone was Austenly austere--dramatic but not over the top, romantic ditto--with bits of Jane's wit and social satire.

The DVD extras were also generous and excellent, including a far better Austen bio. So if you're in the mood to celebrate Jane, I'd choose to see The Jane Austen Book Club over Becoming Jane. Particularly since the Book Club movie is more likely to send you back to Jane's books.

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