For a woman with such a blandly generic first name, Jane Austen has had a uniquely enduring impact on popular culture. Nearly 200 years after her last work was published posthumously, Austen continues to influence art, literature and, increasingly, film.
More recent cinematic homages have focused less on straight adaptation and more on the woman herself. Into that fold comes the pleasantly predictable The Jane Austen Book Club. Based on Karen Joy Fowler’s best-selling novel of the same name, the film follows the six members of a newly formed book club — including thrill-seeking lesbian Allegra — as they set out to read all six novels by Jane Austen.
Warning: minor spoilers
Ostensibly, the movie tries to answer a simple question: Can works of early 19th-century fiction still resonate in our early 21st-century lives?
Any Austen fan, or even anyone who paid attention in high school English, can tell you that the answer, of course, is a resounding “Yes.”
The Jane Austen Book Club opens with scenes of the hustle and hassle of modern life. The montage of malfunctioning cell phones, vending machines, metal detectors and the like are worries Austen herself never knew and probably never imagined. What the writer and the film plumbs instead are the malfunctions of the human heart, that most thorny of muscles.
Set in present-day Sacramento, California’s capital city, the film revolves around the disparate members of the book club. The group of five women and one man includes long-time friends and new acquaintances, hardcore Janeites and Austen newbies.
Among them are Jocelyn (Maria Bello), an unmarried breeder of Rhodesian Ridgebacks who just had one of her prized pooches pass away.
Sylvia (Amy Brenneman) is a librarian with grown children whose marriage has unexpectedly dissolved. Her daughter, a jewelry-making lesbian named Allegra (Maggie Grace, who played Shannon on Lost), has just moved back in with her.
Bernadette (Kathy Baker), who comes up with the idea for the club, is an oft-married — and divorced — yoga enthusiast and all-around bon vivant, and Prudie (Emily Blunt), a prissy, unhappily married high school French teacher, holds the distinction of never actually having been to France.
Thrown in for good measure is Grigg (Hugh Dancy), a good-natured computer technician/sci-fi geek who holds his own distinction of never having read any works by Austen before.