The Jane Austen Book Club
based on the novel by Karen Joy Fowler
2007 • 106 minutes • Sony Pictures Classics
I don’t know if I have anything particular to say about The Jane Austen Book Club, a film wherein six members of a Jane Austen book club find that Austen’s writing sheds insight on their romantic conundrums, as a film unto itself.
I mean, the extended montage of just how difficult modern life is (or was, in the far-off past of 2007) that opens the picture does make its point a little too heavily before launching into the story proper. Some of the jokes are a little broad for my tastes. And I did definitely spend the bulk of the film telling Emily Blunt to absolutely not sleep with her student. (I don’t think it’s a spoiler to reveal that Blunt’s character follows my wise advice.) But, largely, it’s a very comfortable romantic comedy that balances its large cast well, treats all its characters with respect, and chugs along to a pleasant conclusion where everyone, now happily matched, accepts the wisdom of the classics and decide to start reading the Aubrey–Maturin series so they’ll never run out of material. It’s fun, it’s not infuriating (as mainstream American romantic comedies can tend to be, through no inherent fault of the genre), and it’s a little dated. (Two words: flip phones.) What’s not to like, even if it doesn’t make much of an impression?
But I do have something to say about The Jane Austen Book Club as a film in context of female representation in American cinema. There was a point, while watching it, that I suddenly realized that I was experiencing the rare treat of seeing more than one woman over forty be a major character in this film. (There are two young women in the book club—Emily Blunt’s Prudie and Allegra’s Maggie Grace—but the older women dominate the book club and, due to the film’s admirable character balance, the film.) Women’s lives take center stage here; the husbands exist only in relation to them. Even adorkable Grigg, the club’s only male member and therefore the film’s male lead, is rendered dreamy by his comfort with women. He has older sisters (we actually see him reach out to them and have that pay off later), he’s madly in love with Jocelyn, one of the older women, and he adores female sci-fi writers, whom he recommends constantly. This may well be the only film in existence where a couple bonds over reading The Left Hand of Darkness, and that is reason enough for anything to exist.
My initial reaction to all of this was a little disgusted—at the fact that this is largely considered the only marketable way to have lots of women onscreen, let alone older women. I have nothing against romantic comedies, but it is frustrating to realize that this is so often the only space I am “allowed” vigorous female representation like this—because of the assumption that romance is something fundamental to women’s lives and not, say, men’s lives. (And, given the rigorous heteronormativity of the genre in mainstream cinema, one has to wonder where these women’s matches are coming from.) Why can’t I live in a universe where this is the norm?
In that most perfect universe, where I am drowning in films with large female ensembles (and can breathe fire; you gotta dream big, kids), this would just be an adorable diversion. In this most imperfect universe, where I am not drowning in films with large female ensembles (and cannot, disappointingly, breathe fire), it’s an adorable diversion that reminds me of how ghettoized “women’s fiction” is, and how fare that pays attention to emotional concerns—like, you know, character growth and development—is sometimes sniffed at as being “insufficiently” genre to really count (because it’s silly women’s fiction).
This is nothing new. Can you believe it’s been five years since Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner pointed out the disparity in review coverage between male commercial fiction writers and female commercial fiction writers? But I think it’s important to point this things out over and over again, because ignoring it isn’t going to make it go away.
I rented this DVD from the public library.