“The Jane Austen Book Club” is a marvelous fairy tale. Six women and their
partners of various standing begin in relationship chaos and end in unlikely but
welcome perfection. Between beginning and end, the fairy dust of “Enchanted
April” – or in this case, of Jane Austen - is sprinkled on them all.
Suspecting we may be confused about what the title will mean, the filmmakers quickly put us at ease with a montage of the women dealing with the minor frustrations of modern life. One copes with a too-long reach to the drive-through teller machine; another is frustrated by a credit card that repeatedly pops out of its slot making it impossible to pay for her gas; still another is thwarted by a telephone menu. It’s fast and effective and now we know we will be in today’s world.
And so to the characters. We meet Bernadette (Kathy Baker), master fixer of problems who has six marriages under her belt and is looking for a seventh. Jocelyn (a terrific Maria Bello) is a dog breeder who has just staged a funeral for her beloved Rhodesian Ridgeback. Prudie (Emiliy Blunt) teaches high school French and is married to Dean (Marc Blucas), a TV sports fan of the most impenetrable kind. Sylvia (Amy Brenneman) and Daniel (Jimmy Smits) are the devoted parents of Allegra (Maggie Grace), a lesbian who indulges in extreme sports like parachute jumping and rock climbing. Grigg (Hugh Dancy) is the young man who brings his appetite for science fiction to Jane Austen in order to understand his new fancy, Jocelyn the dog breeder .
It is a tribute to the filmmakers’ skill that we get to know these people quickly in the broad strokes of a spirited script (Credit writer/director Robin Swicord). A passion for Jane Austen brings them all together in the new book club Bernadette starts for the purpose of bolstering the grieving Jocelyn (for the Rhodesian Ridgeback). Each of the six is appointed to lead a session on one of Austen’s six books, a structure that allows room for their unfolding personal tribulations but is also studded with just the right amount of literate reference to Austen’s universal characters and themes.
Much of the audience pleasure comes from the similarity between the troubles that befall the author’s characters and those that bedevil her present day readers. Jane Austin is never a period piece. The particular fun of this movie comes from watching each person deal with the Austen situation in her own life. It’s funny and comfortable, and there are no villains. The actors are uniformly good, the script breezy, the movie just the right length. It’s a winning combination.
All the characters are appealing in their warmth and concern for each other, and we have the great pleasure of watching them navigate the hurdles of money, love, marriage, betrayal, and friendship, sprinkled, of course, with a hefty dose of fairy dust and Austin magic.
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