Monday, August 3, 2020

Reviewing Jane: Nothing Ever Fatigues Me But Doing What I Do Not Like

In which we review (almost) every film adapted from or inspired by the works of Jane Austen.

Year: 2007
Director: Jeremy Lovering
Cast: Olivia Williams, Imogen Poots, Hugh Bonneville
Run Time: 1 hour 30 minutes

It is no surprise that Jane Austen got the Shakespeare in Love treatment. Another British writer of popular romance works with an interesting historical life? Yeah, of course. There are only two things surprising about filmmakers cranking out a lightly fictionalized biopic of Austen: the first is that they waited almost a decade to make one, and the second is that they made two in the same goddamn year. The much more well-known Becoming Jane graced screens in 2007, shortly followed on British television by today's subject: Miss Austen Regrets.

Although, from the looks of this poster, maybe I made a mistake and I'm reviewing a 90's slasher movie instead.

Miss Austen Regrets, based on historical record, letters, and a lot of sweaty fantasizing, tells the story of the final months in the life of Jane Austen (Olivia Williams, who played Jane Fairfax in the BBC adaptation of Emma). Around the time that she is trying to get Emma published, she is visiting relatives, specifically her niece Fanny (Imogen Poots) who is deciding whether or not she should invite and accept the proposal of her suitor John Plumptre (Tom Hiddleston, with alarmingly curly hair). Watching this young woman experience love for the first time ignites reminiscences of her former suitors, broken engagements, and all the choices that led her to write and be the woman she is. Things are further complicated by the arrival of an old, now married flame Rev. Brook Bridges (Hugh Bonneville, AKA Paddington's dad).

And she never doesn't wear that bonnet that she has in that one drawing of her that everyone has seen.

Like all literary biopics, no matter how good, Miss Austen Regrets is a teensy bit dumb and doesn't give nearly enough credit to the author's powers of imagination. The characters in these movies always just write down exactly what happens to them and it magically turns into their well-known work (in this case she's directly inspired by the events of the movie to write Persuasion rather than Romeo & Juliet or Pride & Prejudice, so at least the filmmakers assume we're well-read this time). Also, I don't think Jane Austen just walked around saying random lines from her books in conversation as if she had just come up with them on the spot.

Now I don't have enough context for how well the film actually depicts Austen's life (though this watch has inspired me to crack open the giant compendium of her letters that has been collecting dust on my To Read shelf), but frankly that isn't a particularly interesting way to judge a movie regardless. However, that context might have allowed me to get more of a grip on the character study the filmmakers are attempting to play out here. 

Maybe what they're presenting here is entirely out of whatever historical record they could cobble together, but from my vantage point it seems incredibly messy. The script can't decide if Austen is a miserable spinster, a flirty sarcastic minx, a bitter drunk, or a playful feminist icon. And they're certainly not attempting to give her depth by showing she can be all of these things at once, because the tone keep erratically shifting around her (it also can't keep its eye on its secondary characters, shuttling Imogen Poots to the background too often for that storyline to really have the emotional meat on its bones it clearly desires). It's hard to get a bead on what this movie is trying to say about Austen, either psychologically or thematically, and once it ends it leaves you with a profound sense of "oh, that's it?"

Also the costumes are incredibly boring, I don't care if they're authentic. This is CINEMA, people!

Olivia Williams makes a game attempt at shoving all of these different characters into a single suitcase called Jane Austen. Her emotional scenes definitely sing, but they don't fit together in any sort of meaningful order or show any sort of actual progress to the character's arc. Her best moments are when she gets to just sit down with other characters and display her sparkling wit (entirely pilfered from any available Austenana). And at least there's a reliable stable of British acting personalities around to do the things that they do well and amuse eagle-eyed viewers (a special shout-out to Phyllida Law, who played Mrs. Bates in that other 1996 Emma, here playing Austen's mother).

And while Miss Austen Regrets never claimed to be mimicking the tone of one of Austen's novels, the endless references and homages to her work made me expect a film with a tone that was a little less, how you say... fucking depressing. It's a bitter, sad movie whose grueling grimness feels especially unearned by its failures as a character piece. It's certainly not a bad movie, even if it's an unfocused one, but I would certainly have enjoyed it for what it was if it didn't ultimately decide to be so punishing.

TL;DR: Miss Austen Regrets is an insubstantial character study but at least a fairly well-researched one.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 881
Other Films Based on Jane Austen in General
Becoming Jane (Jarrold, 2007)
Miss Austen Regrets (Lovering, 2007)
Austenland (Hess, 2013)

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