Romance and Period Film Reviews

Having seen a number of period dramas and/or films where the central theme is taken from the work of Jane Austen, I thought I’d jot down my quick review of each one as time permits, if only to remember for myself the ones I truly enjoyed, their plots, and which actors starred in each one.

THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB – 4 ♥♥♥♥ out of 5

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I missed this 2008 independent film while it was in theatres and first saw it when I bought the DVD about seven years ago. I watched it at the time and enjoyed it, but after recently being in an Austen book club myself, I decided to rewatch it.

There are many familiar faces in the well-suited ensemble cast, among them Kathy Baker (TV’s Medium and Boston Public); Amy Brenneman (TV’s Judging Amy and Private Practice); Jimmy Smits (TV’s L.A. Law, NYPD Blue and The West Wing); Emily Blunt (The Devil Wears Prada, The Young Victoria and The Girl on the Train); Maggie Grace (TV’s Lost); and Hugh Dancy (Black Hawk Down, Ella Enchanted and Hysteria). Even Lynn Redgrave has a small role as Blunt’s character’s hippie mother.

The premise is six characters for six books, five women who know Austen’s novels well, and one young man, who’s a newbie to her work. Each one will take one of the six major novels and host that month’s discussion. As time goes by, each story is revealed to parallel the heroine of the book that character chooses, with the exception of Grigg (Hugh Dancy) who, director Robin Swicord (who also wrote the adaptation) says in one of the additional featurettes on the DVD, represents all the “misunderstood” men in Austen’s work. Sylvia (Amy Brenneman) is like Mansfield Park’s Fanny Price, steady, unwavering and dedicated to family; Jocelyn (Maria Bello) is Emma, trying to make a match for a friend while ignoring her own need for love; and Prudie (Emily Blunt) who, like Anne Eliott in Persuasion, seeks a second chance with the man she loves.

Delicate and often amusing homages to Austen weave throughout the narrative. Prudie, while deciding if she should have an affair, sees a walk/don’t walk street sign blinking out the message “What Would Jane Do?”; Daniel (Smits) at one point attempts to explain himself in a lengthy, heartfelt and hand-delivered letter, just as Darcy does with Elizabeth; Allegra (Grace) is injured while skydiving, echoing the impassioned and reckless Marianne Dashwood.
The additional featurettes on the purchased DVD are also enjoyed, including a short history of Jane Austen’s life.

The Jane Austen Book Club is well worth a watch if you’re an Austen fan. I agree with film critic Roger Ebert’s summation, “Sense and Sexuality! A Celebration!”

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PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES – 2 ♥♥ out of 5Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

A well-meaning friend recommended I see this film. She knows I’ve written traditional Regency romance and am an Austenite, and she claimed it was “great fun.” Well…fun I suppose it was, but great it was not. The viewer is thrown into the deep end of the story with no warning and flails about for the next hour and a half or so, attempting to understand how anyone thought this particular “mash-up” could be popular at the local multi-cinema.

The story follows Lizzie and Darcy’s romance in a fairly faithful, albeit abbreviated, way. Scenes that were filled with tension and heartfelt emotion by Austen are here tossed out to be skimmed over in rapid fashion, and apt to be interrupted at any time by the appearance of one or more of the multitude of the undead lurking in the English countryside. Apparently, fighting this scourge seems to have been a long-term problem, for the Bennett sisters had time to be sent off for training in martial arts in China and have now returned to help protect Longbourne and their neighbors. Darcy is also an impressive zombie hunter, presumably having learned much from his aunt, Lady Catherine, who is the “baddest” of them all and has the eye patch to prove it.

Oddly, what I personally found most objectionable were the at least two paraphrased plagiarisms of well-known sentiments from other Austen novels. Lizzie declares at one point that ‘if a young woman can’t find adventure in her own neighborhood, she must look for it elsewhere’ (Northanger Abbey) and Darcy swears to Lizzie that he is ‘half anguish, half hope’ that she will accept his suit (Persuasion). Really…isn’t lampooning one much-loved Austen tome at a time enough?

If you think all of this sounds ridiculous, you’re entirely correct. However, it bears all the charm of a group of local children who say “let’s put on a play” and decide to give a new twist to a classic. One can’t help laughing at times, groaning at others, and just generally going along with it just to see how truly bad it can get. If you’re an Austen purist and not even prone to give legitimate fan fiction a try, stay far away from this one. If, however, you like a chuckle at something dear and familiar being set on its ear, this might just be your cup of tea. ~ Kadee

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LOVE AND FRIENDSHIP – 3 ♥♥♥ out of 5 Love and Friendship poster

I saw Love and Friendship at a theatre this past weekend with at least fifty other men and women of all ages and was pleased that it was well received. That said, even though I did enjoy it, it seemed like a very ‘minor’ film to me, befitting the source material, perhaps, which was Austen’s posthumously published novella, Lady Susan.

There simply wasn’t enough story here to make for a more substantial work, especially for Austenites who’ve spent six delicious hours with the 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice or four hours with 2009’s Emma, often on more than one occasion. Love and Friendship is a very fast-moving 92 minutes, finished it seemed just as one is truly settling in to relish a longer piece.

The story centers on the seductive and often scandalous Lady Susan Vernon, a young and clever widow portrayed by Kate Beckinsale, and her attempts to marry her daughter Frederica off to the well-to-do Sir James Martin. Sir James, a pliable gentleman, is both silly and clueless, perfect for Lady Susan’s tastes, but not the one Frederica wants as a husband. Instead, she has her sights set on her aunt Catherine’s brother, the handsome young Reginald DeCourcey. A good friend of Lady Susan’s suggests a different outcome to the dilemma, allowing everyone involved to get what, and whom, they want.

One critic called Love and Friendship “howlingly funny,” but I disagree. Funny, yes, but all of Austen’s works have at least some humor in them. I agree with the review in The Hollywood Reporter that states:  Cheeky in its approach as well as spirited and good-natured, this enterprising adaptation of the author’s relatively unfamiliar early novella Lady Susan remains buoyant through most of its short running time but lacks the stirring emotional hooks found in the best Austen works, on the page as well as the screen.

The full Hollywood Reporter review can be found here.  ~ Kadee

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AUSTENLAND – 4 ♥♥♥♥ out of 5

austenlandAustenland is a charming and funny romantic-comedy based on author Shannon Hale’s 2007 novel of the same name.

I admit I went to see this movie without high expectations, as the general reviews I’d read weren’t great. I also wasn’t thrilled with the idea of Jane Austen’s fans being parodied or even made to look clownish. Yes, it was a bit over the top, even silly, at times, but I found an underlying love for romance and history celebrated in this film. Was every detail “period accurate”? Hardly. But Keri Russell’s character of Jane Hayes was looking for something in Austen’s time that she couldn’t seem to find in the 21st century…not just romance, but also civility, class, and a giving-in to pent-up emotion…sensibility with sense, if you will.

J.J. Feild as Mr. Nobley was a pleasant surprise. With only a vague recollection of his work in the 2007 British TV production of Northanger Abbey, my least favorite of Austen’s stories, his earnestness in the midst of the chaos of the “Austenland experience” seemed heartfelt.

Instead of making me cringe, this film made me chuckle and gave me the two things I most want from a romance…unexpected twists and turns to the story and a happy ending. Jane Austen and her characters often had a dry wit and a great sense of humor about themselves. So, as Austen’s fans shouldn’t we, as well? ~ Kadee

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DVD-coverSENSE AND SENSIBILITY (1995) – 5 ♥♥♥♥♥ out of 5

Yes, this film really IS that good!

The director was Ang Lee, who also helmed movies such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain, and Life of Pi. The screenwriter was Emma Thompson, who also stars as the eldest sister, Elinor Dashwood, and who won both the Academy Award and the Golden Globe for Best Adapted Screenplay.

The film starred Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant, the late Alan Rickman, and Greg Wise (whom Thompson later married.) Supporting roles went to familiar British actors Gemma Jones, Robert Hardy, Tom Wilkinson, Harriet Walter, Imelda Staunton and Hugh Laurie.

Sense and Sensibility, the book, isn’t my most favorite of Jane Austen’s plots, falling behind Persuasion but perhaps coming a bit before Pride and Prejudice for that ranking. But this film adaptation didn’t suffer from a single misstep, as far as I’m concerned. Every bit of dialogue, every camera angle, the costumes, the locations…heck, even the lighting…was superb!

If you’d like a synopsis of the plot, as well as a plethora of detail about the production of the film, please see the excellent article here on Wikipedia about it.

Is there such a thing as a “perfect” movie? Probably not…but Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility comes as close as I’ve ever seen! ~ Kadee

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