Back when I was editing the print version of Cinefantastique magazine, I included a regular column (usually written by Anthony Montesano) that reviewed films that resided somewhere on the “Borderland” separating cinefantastique from mainstream cinema. Sometimes, these were movies such as HAMLET or Woody Allen’s EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU, with ghosts in one or two scenes; sometimes they were films that dealt with themes or ideas relevant to horror, fantasy, and science fiction. In that spirit, here is a review of THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB, which is not a science fiction film but which deserves mention for portraying a science fiction fan who is not a hopeless geek – an occurrence that might not be unique in cinema but is certainly rare enough to deserve comment.
The film’s conceit is that a group of female friends have started the titular club to create a pleasant diversion for one of their members, who is undergoing a painful divorce. The only man invited to join is Grigg (Hugh Dancy), an avid reader of science-fiction. His introduction is not auspicious: first seen at a hotel hosting a sci-fi convention, where he seems to know a bit too much about fans of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER (who are briefly glimpsed, looking like the cliche of sullen Goth-geeks).
Fortunately, Grigg turns out to be a likable character with a lot more going for him than good looks: he is intelligent and open to exploring areas of interest beyond those he already has. Although he joins the group because he is romantically interested in one of the members, he actually learns that Jane Austen’s novels are not just “girly-girl” books, and the film makes it clear that he is far more open-minded than the object of his affection, who stubbornly refuses to read the Ursula K. Leguin novels he has recommended.
Gratifyingly, the film does not come down in favor of Austen being superior to LeGuinn; rather, it indicates that both authors (and the genres they represent) are equally deserving of attention. Reduced to its simplest essence, THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB might seem to suggest that men are magically transformed into sensitive romantics by reading Austen, but the real point is that the male characters, including Grigg, learn to share a common interest with their female partners. What’s good for the gander is good for the goose: the same pattern holds true for the woman who finally breaks down and reads LeGuin’s wrok. The point is that there seems to be a gulf between men and women because they enjoy different literature, but the gulf is erased when each samples the other’s favored form.
If one were to judge the THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB by its cover, it might seem like a routine “Chick Flick,” but that dismissive term does not do the film justice. Filled with fine performances, interesting characters, and compelling dramatic conflicts, THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB is a rewarding experience that succeeds where films like THE PAGEMASTER (1994) fail: it effectively uses the cinematic form to laud the virtues of literature as a means of enriching our lives. Just as the sci-fi fan in the movie learn there is more to Austen than he expected, those who check out this film will find themselves not only pleasantly surprised but also richly rewarded.
Though not a genre film, THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB does have a few specific moments that relate to horror, fantasy, and science fiction:
- The titular club meets once a month, with each member taking a turn at hosting an evening devoted to a particular book. Grigg’s book night is devoted to Northanger Abby, which was inspired by Ann Radcliff’s Gothic novel The Mysteries of Udolpho. As a special treat, tech-wiz Grigg rigs up a series of haunted house-type effects that scare the living daylights out of his guests, creating an atmosphere suitable for discussing a book filled with references to crumbling castles and rotting skeletons.
- In a scene revealing that writer-director Robin Swicord (working from a novel by Karen Joy Fowler) does not know the science-fiction genre as well as she should, the screenplay has Grigg comparing a plot development in one of Austen’s books to the surprise revelation in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK that Luke and Leia are brother and sister. In fact, the revelation is made in RETURN OF THE JEDI; the big revelation in EMPIRE is that Darth Vader is Luke’s father.
THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB (2007). Written and directed by Robin Swicord, from the novel by Karen Joy Fowler. Cast: Maria Bello, Emily Blunt, Kathy Baker, Amy Brenneman, Maggie Grace, Jimmy Smits, Kevin Zegers, Marc Blucas, Hugh Dancy.