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The Jane Austen Book Club: Sweet, Comforting, Womanly

I was totally right about The Jane Austen Book Club: It makes a far better movie than it did a book — though yes, I'm aware that Austen herself would blanch at my saying that about any written work. In this situation, however, we don't particularly need to know the inner workings of these characters' emotional lives. We don't need to read their thoughts. The intersecting stories of five women — and one man — who make up the Jane Austen Book Club are interesting enough on the surface to sustain a movie. All told, The Jane Austen Book Club is now one of my favorite movies of 2007.

The film's premise keeps it going at a nice steady clip: six people form a book club devoted to reading Austen's six novels over the course of six months. Bernadette (Kathy Baker) is a boisterous, life-loving older woman who has been married several times and has a warm way of making friends with everyone. Her friend Jocelyn (Maria Bello) is an unmarried successful dog breeder, and Sylvia (Amy Brenneman) is struggling to understand the unraveling of her marriage. Sylvia's daughter is the adventurous Allegra (Maggie Grace), a lesbian jewelery-maker. Rounding out the club is the controlling high school French teacher Prudie (Emily Blunt) and the lone male of the group: the sweet and energetic Grigg (Hugh Dancy).

How (and why) do I love thee, Jane Austen Book Club? I will count the ways (wrong writer, I know, just go with it) if you

  1. This is very much a woman's world. The Jane Austen Book Club is for women to talk about, well, women. The addition of the one male, Grigg, provides endless comedic relief, and somehow highlights the empowerment that comes from these womens' shared love of Austen. In many ways, men (often including Grigg) are utterly on the outside of this circle, and the circle consists of some awesome ladies. Certainly I found myself wishing I could be friends with these characters.
  2. The film is a wonderfully affirming ode to the joys and comforts of female friendship. There isn't the cattiness of soapy "Melrose Place"-type dramas though there is also a blessed lack of the silliness of, say, The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. It's just a simple, lovely, funny portrayal of the kinds of relationships real women often have with one another.
  3. Writer/Director Robin Swicord has achieved what I think is a most admirable thing: the perfect balance between drama and humor that keeps everything real enough while always quickly providing an opportunity to laugh after a somber moment. This way, things don't get too precious or bogged down in the mire and muck of life.
  4. The differences between "women's literature" (i.e. Austen) and "men's literature" (i.e. science fiction novels) are explored, and it's a curious topic. Grigg is a huge fan of science-fiction, and for him, being a man is intrinsically tied to science-fiction. He even tries to understand Austen's works in the best way he knows how: by comparing them to Star Wars. On the other hand, Jocelyn scorns the entire sci-fi genre — until Grigg points out that many of his favorite sci-fi works are written by women under ambiguous pseudonyms.
  5. In a move that would be completely Austen-approved, there is a beautifully happy ending. Admittedly, if this ending weren't as abrupt as it is, it would be gratingly cheesy. But to my relief, our protagonists having "all that they desire" in the end (as Austen aimed to do for her characters) is perfectly satisfying.


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