Talking Movies

November 20, 2019

From the Archives: The Jane Austen Book Club

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

Following her husband’s decision to end their marriage Sylvia’s friends console her by starting a Jane Austen book club and trying to set her up with its sole male. Romance at the club though takes a familiarly Austen twist.

Sometimes bad books are the best ones to adapt. I remember this book getting slated on its release for having the temerity to include Jane Austen in the title when it was mere frothy chick-lit. Well guess what? In the hands of Little Women screenwriter Robin Swicord, who also directed, it becomes as refreshing as a cappuccino. This film is not going to win much critical acclaim for startling insight but its darned enjoyable and that’s a high achievement. Sylvia (Amy Brenneman) is distraught at her philandering husband ditching her after a speech in which he seems to imply he deserves a medal for staying married for 20 years. Her single friend Jocelyn (Bello) sets up a Jane Austen book club, which will read one Austen novel each month, and invites a younger man she meets a dog breeder’s conference to join. Her plan is to set him up with Sylvia. In a riff on the plot of Emma Jocelyn is blind to her own feelings and when, after Grigg has done everything in his power to woo her, he starts to show interest in Sylvia she gets jealous.

Mario Bello and Hugh Dancy are the heart of the film and both give winning turns. Emily Blunt though steals the show. She gives a tremendous performance as Prudie, the buttoned down daughter of a hippie, who is fatally attracted to a flirtatious student as she falls out of love with her good ole boy husband. This is a world away from her hilarious scene stealing in The Devil Wears Prada. Her performance here is very controlled as she brilliantly conveys that Prudie is battening down a lot of passion in a desperate effort not to become her mother, who briefly appears in an over the top cameo by Lynn Redgrave. Prudie has fallen out of love with her husband Dean (Marc Blucas: Buffy fans still hate him for a short-lived role) who places his career before their marriage. She thus picks Persuasion, Austen’s novel about giving love a second chance, for her turn in hosting the book club.

The highlight of the film comes as Blunt has a very LA Story moment when about to make a calamitous decision with Kevin Zegers’ tempter student. In a scene sound-tracked by Aimee Mann’s terrific ‘Save Me’, a traffic-light starts to flash ‘What Would Jane Do?’ at her. Silly but sweet, and the happy endings that occur are all the sweeter for being somewhat unexpected. No higher compliment can I pay this film than to say its depiction of the power and emotional insight of Austen’s Persuasion has made me eager to go out and get an Austen book I never read.

3/5

November 27, 2009

Glorious 39

I’m in something of a quandary about Glorious 39, a rare cinema outing by acclaimed writer/director Stephen Poliakoff who specialises in making literate thoughtful dramas for the BBC. When I interviewed Bill Nighy in February he was bubbling with enthusiasm for working with Poliakoff again, having won a Golden Globe for his lead role in the sublime 2005 TV film Gideon’s Daughter. Sadly Glorious 39 has all the recognisable Poliakoff concerns but inexplicably falls apart in exploring them.

In the present day the elderly Walter (Christopher Lee) narrates to his young cousin the events of the glorious summer of 1939 when the world stood on the brink of war – a prospect with which the private dramas of the Keyes family, in which Walter played a minor part, seemed intertwined. Romola Garai, who sparkled in the lead role in the BBC’s recent adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, stars as Anna the eldest but adopted daughter of Bill Nighy’s aristocratic Tory MP Sir Alexander Keyes. Nighy is rather good as a compassionate man whose experiences in WWI have so unfitted him for dealing with another war that he tries to retreat into the private realm to dote on his children. Jeremy Northam is startlingly good as the sinister MI5 agent who dogs this retreat from Westminster while David Tennant has a nice cameo as a Scottish MP who makes a passionate attack on the policy of appeasement at a Keyes garden party. Anna (Garai) has little time for all this, being more concerned with her budding film career and boyfriend in the Foreign Office (Charlie Cox). However she discovers recordings of secret meetings revealing an MI5 plot to murderously suppress any opposition to Neville Chamberlain’s policy of Appeasement and is thrown into a dangerous world of espionage and intimate betrayal.

Glorious 39 starts as a thoughtful drama but unexpectedly develops Hitchockian paranoia. Poliakoff’s trademark concerns with memory, family, the moving image, and the impact of the past on the present are all present and correct and Glorious 39 is wonderfully atmospheric. All the performances are very good enabling Poliakoff to deliver some shocks with devastating emotional impact amidst a string of unsettling suspense set-pieces including a kidnapped child. Ultimately though the film degenerates into sub-Hitchockian pastiche, undermined by the knowledge that whatever action Anna takes is irrelevant to war being declared or Churchill becoming PM, as this film will not have a Tarantinoesque disregard for historical fact. Poliakoff thus switches genres to introduce a Victorian madwoman in the attic horror story before contriving a deeply odd ‘meaningful’ ending.

A character study that made us empathise with decent individuals promoting Appeasement for good reasons, even though they are on the wrong side of history, by re-inscribing their uncertainty about what the future held would be prime Poliakoff. Sadly Poliakoff eschews this route meaning that this misfiring thriller should have stayed on the small-screen.

2/5

November 5, 2009

Bright Star

Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish acquit themselves well as Romantic poet John Keats and his fiancé Fanny Brawne, but Jane Campion’s screenplay serves them poorly. So much for her return to period drama being her great comeback…

Brawne, a middle class girl who makes her own fashionable clothes, falls under the spell of Keats when he moves into her old house. When her family moves back into the other half of the rented house a doomed love-affair ensues. Campion’s feminism, laudable in her other work, destroys this film by its relentless focus on Brawne rather than Keats. Being brutal, Brawne wasn’t the Regency’s Coco Chanel, and Campion fails to make her dramatically interesting. While the BBC’s current version of Austen’s Emma features Emma making lists of improving books to read then cheerfully ditching Milton after 2 pages for more mischief Fanny pretends to read Milton and then limply never does because of Mr Brown’s sneering.

Oh dear, Mr Brown… Bright Star is sunk by its reliance on Andrew Motion’s biography. Keats did live with Scottish poet Charles Brown but this film is dragged under by his presence – he is callous, misogynist, boorish and painfully talentless. It’s never explained why kind-hearted Keats endures this oaf, which leaves the audience assuming it’s purely because Brown subsidises the Cockney Romantic. His status as the poorest but ultimately the greatest of the Romantic poets despite snobbish contemporary criticism is thus rendered alienating rather than endearing. Incredibly Shelley and Byron never appear, two scenes with the artist JH Reynolds defending Keats’ poetry – “there are immaturities to be sure, but there are also immensities” – are all we get to create a sense of the artistic community of the era.

This film feels far longer than two hours because it endlessly repeats its precious few ideas: Keats loves Brawne, Keats is too poor to marry Brawne, Keats is inspired to write better poetry by Brawne, Brawne can’t understand poetry but loves Keats, Brawne doesn’t care that he’s poor, Mr Brown is a jerk to Brawne, Keats defends Mr Brown, repeat and fade… Even the failing health of the consumptive Keats, who died aged 26, only ends up running into this endless loop. One of Keats’ most famous lines, “I have been half in love with easeful Death”, runs like a refrain through the film, yet Campion fails to convey any sense of Keats as marked for doom, or, thanks to her narrow focus on the purely domestic, the loss to literature that his early death was – his achievements are recorded in the Norton Anthology of Literature thus: “his poetry, when he stopped writing at the age of twenty-four, exceeds the accomplishment at the same age of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton”.

Ultimately watching people reading letters while those letters are read in voiceover is deeply un-cinematic. The best of these scenes are the closing reading of Bright Star and, over the end credits, Ben Whishaw finally being allowed to recite the full Ode to a Nightingale. Julian Temple’s Pandemonium, a deeply imaginative and visually inventive 2001 biopic of laudanum-addled poet ST Coleridge starring Linus Roache was a model of how to catch the lightning of poetry in a cinematic bottle. Watching it then reading Keats’ poetry would come closer to appreciating his short-lived but dazzling flame.

2/5

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