The Jane Austen Book Club (PG-13) ★★★

Review Date: September 28th, 2007

The Jane Austen Book Club is definitely chick lit-turned-chick flick, but an engaging script and winning performances elevate it from its cheesy TV movie-of-the-week potential.


Based on the bestselling novel by Karen Joy Fowler, Jane Austen revolves around a group of friends who decide to start a Jane Austen book club, aptly named "All-Austen-All-The-Time." In the group we have: the book club's instigator, Bernadette (Kathy Baker), a free-spirited fifty-something who has been married six times; her good friend Jocelyn (Maria Bello), a dog breeder who has steered clear of marriage so far; Jocelyn's childhood friend Sylvia (Amy Brenneman), whose husband of 23 years (Jimmy Smits) has just left her for another woman; Sylvia's twenty-something daughter Allegra (Maggie Grace), a proud lesbian who nevertheless falls too hard and too often for the wrong women; Prudie (Emily Blunt), an uptight high school French teacher Bernadette takes under her wing; and finally sci-fi geek Grigg (Hugh Dancy), the only male in the group, brought in by Jocelyn as a potential suitor for the jilted Sylvia. He acquiesces even though he really has a thing for Jocelyn. But Jane Austen is the one who rules supreme in these monthly get-togethers, and the book-club members soon find parallels between the author's work and their own lives.


The performances in Jane Austen are definitely one of the keys to the film's allure. Maria Bello (A History of Violence) is particularly good as Jocelyn, a woman who won't open herself up to a meaningful relationship, preferring to lavish affection on her canine best friends. Of course, when Jocelyn finally realizes how idiotic she's been, passing up a tasty morsel like Grigg, Bello turns it on like the pro she is. For his part, Dancy (Evening) shares some mean chemistry with Bello and plays the Jane Austen novice with style; as his eyes are opened to Austen's writing, so are the audience's. Blunt--the Brit who made such a stunning American film debut in The Devil Wears Prada--plays Prudie right on the edge, evident in Blunt's perpetually teary-eyed and quivering-voiced performance. She's the snooty literary snob of the group but her personal life is in shambles--married to a kind man (Marc Blucas) who doesn't really understand her, which prompts Prudie to consider having a fling with a charismatic high school senior (Kevin Zegers). Natch. As the more veteran members of the cast, Baker, Brenneman and Smits are all a little more predictable in their roles but well-fitted for the story nonetheless.


Jane Austen is one of those rare cases in which the movie is as good—if not maybe better—than the book. That's a true testament to writer/director Swicord (who also wrote the Memoirs of a Geisha adaptation). While the book occasionally plods, the movie mostly zings right along. Swicord cuts through Fowler's long expository passages on the characters' pasts and succinctly recaps each one's individual backstory without ever showing it. Instead, Swicord focuses her attention on the intertwining relationships as they relate to Jane Austen's nine novels. The only drawback could be that Jane Austen tends to be sappy—but it is its exuberance for Jane Austen and her work that gives the film its pulse. True, this movie is for women, by women, but as far as a lesson on the late 18th century novelist, Jane Austen is far more entertaining than taking an English college course on Victorian writers. Let's just say, if the movie doesn't get you to read a Jane Austen novel, nothing will.

Bottom Line rated this film 3 stars.