“Reading Jane Austen is a freaking minefield.”
That comment by hound-breeder Jocelyn (Maria Bello) comes about one-third through the superlative ensemble film The Jane Austen Book Club, and oh, is it spot-on! When five women – plus a male Austen virgin, Grigg, played just this side of adorable by Hugh Dancy – decide to discuss all six novels in Austen’s oeuvre, it doesn’t take long for longing, desire and confusion to enter and take their own seats. Sides are taken, loyalties shift, and in reading their monthly period piece, the group applies 19th century wisdom to 21st century dilemmas.
The club forms out of loss and the wry Austen observation that “general incivility is the essence of love”. Sylvia, a librarian (Amy Brenneman), has just been dumped for a slightly newer model by her husband Daniel (Jimmy Smits). Their daughter Allegra (Maggie Grace) moves back with her mom for a spell of support. Jocelyn, Sylvia’s best friend, has buried a beloved dog, while high school teacher Prudie (Emily Blunt), scheduled for a Paris week with her husband, learns that France is out. Resentfully distracting herself, she meets Bernadette (Kathy Baker) in a movie queue, and it’s maternal Bernadette who defaults to Jane Austen as the embryonic book club’s author.
“So, we’re starting in the middle!” says Grigg, who meets Jocelyn in an elevator when their two conventions – hound-breeders and science fiction – interlace. “They’re not sequels,” Jocelyn informs him dryly. The six gather at members’ houses to trade insights, jokes, barbs, wine and more information than uptight Prudie’s comfortable with.
Austen’s writing becomes a guide through the perils of attraction and lust, the too-charming Willoughby measured against the stalwart Knightley. “Austen’s all about keeping it zipped,” says Jocelyn. Bernadette counters, “Just once, I’d like to pick up Mansfield Park and see Fanny end up in the sack with Henry Crawford.” The perils are all too real: accident-prone Allegra falls too hastily in love, Jocelyn sets up Grigg with Sylvia – yet worries when they hit it off – and Prudie tangos with one of her students when her wastrel hippie mother (brilliantly played by Lynn Redgrave) unexpectedly dies. Only much-married Bernadette is immune.
The film’s all about relationships . . . or is it? When Grigg gives Jocelyn two books by Ursula LeGuin, it’s as much to pry her out of her literary cave as to slip her a writer he admires. When Daniel shows up at the club’s last meeting with a copy of Persuasion, Bernadette teaches him how to make amends the Austen way. Even Prudie arrests her headlong rush to a hotel room by querying “what would Jane do?”
Self-restraint versus indulgence, trust versus caution . . . life is a freaking minefield. Reading Jane Austen just makes it more palatable. The “All-Jane-Austen-All-The-Time” book club tosses between reality and fiction, life and art, and ends with six readers – plus friends – who scheme to do Austen all over again.