Sunday, September 13, 2020

Reviewing Jane: I Shall Be Miserable If I Have Not An Excellent Library


Year: 1995
Director: Simon Langton
Cast: Jennifer Ehle, Colin Firth, Crispin Bonham-Carter
Run Time: 5 hours 27 minutes

Now now, you didn't think that watching every single available motion picture based on Jane Austen would end the marathon, did you? I've steered clear of series, web series, and miniseries adaptations because I do value my time somewhat, as hard as that may be to believe. But I couldn't leave this marathon dormant without exploring the reason almost everything we've covered even exists: the 1995 BBC miniseries Pride and Prejudice

The miniseries, which ran for six episodes between September and October 1995, became an instant worldwide phenomenon, selling out the entire run of 12,000 video sets within two hours, going on to sell an additional 58,000 by the end of the week despite the fact that, in the words of a BBC spokeswoman, "viewers [were] able to tape the episodes at home for free." Jane Austen has always existed in the popular consciousness (certainly if this wasn't the case, we wouldn't have had a lush production of Sense and Sensibility, a modern teen adaptation of Emma, and a considerably less lush mounting of Persuasion hit that very same year), but if all the material before and during 1995 was the foundation, Pride and Prejudice was the fucking massive skyscraper bursting out of it.

Speaking of massive skyscrapers, we couldn't have panned down, Mr. Langton?

Yeah yeah, the plot of Pride and Prejudice. Let's not waste too much time on this. Lizzy Bennet (Jennifer Ehle) has a gaggle of unmarried sisters, Jane the eldest (Susannah Harker) falls in love with new rich neighbor Mr. Bingley (Crispin Bonham-Carter), whose best friend Mr. Darcy (Colin Firth, who would go on to play another Mr. Darcy in Bridget Jones' Diary, one of the aforementioned many films that owe their very existence to this miniseries) is kinda mean to her. They fall in love eventually because fixing a man is the ultimate romantic fantasy!

Also yes, Crispin Bonham-Carter is related to Helena Bonham-Carter (they're third cousins), because there are only like five families in England.

We have a lot more ground to cover than usual, so let's get cracking. I'll be reviewing the series as a whole rather than as individual episodes, because they were all directed by the same man and also because the way the story is sliced into sixths seems pretty arbitrary. The benefit of this structure is getting to spend a lot more time with the cast of characters, most of whom are splendidly performed. 

One person you'll wish you has spent less time with is Mrs. Bennet (Alison Steadman), whose cartoonish pantomime buffoonery does get a little grating by the finale despite being a pretty accurate depiction of the character as written. But the other cartoon character of the piece, the sniveling reverend Mr. Collins (David Bamber) is by far the best iteration of that particular role I've seen. And trust me, I've seen many. Timothy Spall owes his entire career to this greasy, conniving, skin-crawling performance. 

And obviously I should go no further without talking about Colin Firth. I'll admit I'm not a devotee to any particular iteration of Darcy (in fact the only Austen hero I give a particular rat's ass about is Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility because I ship him and Elinor real hard), because the men in these stories are uninteresting pretty objects to be presented to the heroine once she has completed a romantic journey (Jane Austen, my feminist queen!). But Firth really nails the "standing in corners brooding" angle something fierce.

Unfortunately, I think the biggest liability in the cast is Lizzy Bennet herself. Nothing against Jennifer Ehle's skills. In fact, I think she imbues her Lizzy with the most real, tangible wit I've seen in any iteration. You can see the cogs turning in her mind when she's about to crack wise. But she has a certain movie star stiffness that drags you out of the story, which recalls Greer Garson's portrayal in the 1940 Pride and Prejudice. She has the advantage on Garson that she's not a clear decade and a half older than her character, but you wouldn't know that by the way she carries herself. Ehle is giving a Movie Star performance, all glittering eyes and catlike poise and best sides turned to the camera just so. You can see the artifice in her acting, and while that works in certain circumstances, those circumstances do not include a period piece that demands a kind of realism from its leads (if not its side characters) to properly ground them in the Regency era.

See that face she's giving? I hope you like it, because you're about to see a LOT of it.

Another benefit of the miniseries format is that the screenwriter is not obliged to cut all the comedy bits in favor of heaving romance. Finally we have someone who looked at the novel and said, "why not both?" And this Pride and Prejudice is quite genuinely funny, despite everything implied by stiff, starched BBC sets and costumes. 

The romance, on the other hand, does unfortunately suffer a smidge from some truly dreadful 90's TV moments. Episode 4 in particular is very ill-used by goofy-ass cross-dissolves to flashbacks of scenes we just saw and alarmingly clunky superimposed shots of Darcy's face. And while I appreciate its attempts at jazzing up the many scenes of characters reading letters, the way that characters react in perfect timing with the voiceover reading the letter is more disconcerting than compelling.

But what Pride and Prejudice needs to get right, it does: have two beautiful people eye-fucking over a pianoforte. So really, who could complain?

TL;DR: Pride and Prejudice is delightful with fleet pacing despite having the longest run time of any Austen project we've covered, even the Bollywood ones.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 980
Other Films Based on Pride and Prejudice
Pride and Prejudice (Leonard, 1940)
Pride and Prejudice (miniseries - Langton, 1995)
Bridget Jones's Diary (Maguire, 2001)
Pride & Prejudice: A Latter-Day Comedy (Black, 2003)
Bride & Prejudice (Chadha, 2004)
Pride and Prejudice (Wright, 2005)
Unleashing Mr. Darcy (Winning, 2016)
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Steers, 2016)
Before the Fall (Geisler, 2016)
Marrying Mr. Darcy (Monroe, 2018)
Christmas at Pemberley (Theys, 2018)
Pride, Prejudice, and Mistletoe (McBrearty, 2018)
Pride & Prejudice: Atlanta (Baraka, 2019)

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Reviewing Jane: We Certainly Do Not Forget You, So Soon As You Forget Us

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

Year: 2007
Director: Adrian Shergold
Cast: Sally Hawkins, Alice Krige, Anthony Head
Run Time: 1 hour 33 minutes

Oh frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! This is the final feature film of the Reviewing Jane marathon! Of course, like any marathon I do, that comes with a big fat asterisk. The second they make another one of these things, it's back to the drawing board (and even with the pandemic, I'm sure Hallmark will find a way to crank out a dozen or so this Christmas). And also I haven't included 1948's Emma, which I've been unable to find anywhere, not that I need another Emma adaptation in my life when we have two more or less perfect ones on our hands as it is.

And though I've sworn off including miniseries (I'm not a TV reviewer, and also including them would increase the length of this marathon by a nerve-shattering margin), I wouldn't be doing the genre justice if I didn't review the 1995 Colin Firth Pride and Prejudice sooner than later. But asterisks aside, this is a big day! Let's dive into the final adaptation of Jane Austen's final novel, 2007's Persuasion.

And of course, every single publicity still features the couple standing with each other even though this is the story where they're actually together like 1.5% of the time.

In case you missed it yesterday, Persuasion is the story of old spinster (she's 26, the horror) Anne Elliott (Sally Hawkins) who rejected the proposal of naval captain Henry Wentworth (Rupert Penry-Jones) seven years ago after being persuaded against it by her supercilious father (Anthony Head) and godmother (Alice Krige). Now he's rich and they're thrown together in a variety of situations though there's always some love triangle or other in the way, including a cousin that's super horny for Anne, a romance that everyone approves of because Regency England was the freaking Wild West of incest.

For all we know, Wentworth is also her cousin, but at least he isn't Mr. Elliott whose proposal involves his fervent wish that she not be forced to change her last name.

So yeah, we covered a different BBC TV movie adaptation of this same novel literally yesterday, but at least this one stars Sally Hawkins, who's a consummately terrific actress. Terrific enough that the lazy crutch of having her write diary entries in voiceover to narrate her internal thoughts and feelings almost doesn't fail to work. 

Honestly, every aspect of this one is a step up, even if it's just a half step. The character humor here is much more well-rendered, and provides a jovial spirit that buoys the more somber autumnal tone of the romance. A special standout is Amanda Hale as Anne's hypochondriac sister Mary, whose illness gets more or less severe depending on whether or not she wants to do what she's asked. She plays the character like a drunken pantomime witch, and it's certainly not "realistic," but it's perfectly pitched camp hilarity.

This adaptation likewise more capably handles the "action" sequences that the previous one rendered as wet noodley as possible. Louisa falling off the step on the beach and launching herself into a coma (still the most hilarious Austen scene to see adapted to film) is more sudden and shocking, and there's a scene where Anne resets a child's dislocated collarbone with a sickening snap unlike anything I might come to expect in a period piece romance.

These ladies aren't messing around.

The only real flaw I can find with this Persuasion is its curious tendency to present scenes in a stuttery, color-leached handheld style that wouldn't be out of place in an early 2000's J-horror film. But otherwise every element has the "good not great" quality of the best BBC adaptations.

I will say the romance here is more felt than last time, though it is still necessarily chilly, being as it is about a romance that is already beyond the point of its passionate first blush. And Sally Hawkins certainly displays a depth of feeling that a screen Anne Elliott hasn't shown before, even if she can't quite sell the prelude to a kiss that asks her to slowly creep her face closer to Wentworth, millimeter by millimeter for literally 30 seconds.

Persuasion is not my favorite Austen novel (in fact, it's my second least favorite behind Mansfield Park), and none of its adaptations have been my favorites either, but this was a perfectly adequate film with which I'm quite happy to close off the biggest leg of this marathon.

TL;DR: Persuasion is certainly the best adaptation of Jane Austen's final novel, but that's not a high bar to clear.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 796
Other Films Based on Persuasion
(Michell, 1995)
Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (Kidron, 2004)
Persuasion (Shergold, 2007)

Monday, September 7, 2020

Reviewing Jane: None Of Us Want To Be In Calm Waters All Our Lives

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

Year: 1995
Director: Roger Michell
Cast: Amanda Root, Ciarán Hinds, Susan Fleetwood 
Run Time: 1 hour 47 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

As I've discovered over the course of this marathon, 1995 seems to be the cornerstone year that was responsible for bringing Jane Austen back to the rabid mainstream popularity she continues to enjoy today. That year gave us perennially popular Pride and Prejudice miniseries, the iconic Emma adaptation Clueless, the Golden Globe-winning Sense and Sensibility, and Persuasion. It's only natural that one of them should be the least impactful, and Persuasion just so happens to be the unlucky winner. 

But we're not here to review SOME of Jane Austen. We're here to review ALL of it, dammit!

Persuasion, based on Austen's posthumously published final novel, tells the tale of Anne Elliott (Amanda Root), Austen's oldest heroine by a long shot. In her youth, she was convinced (perhaps one might say persuaded) by her parents to reject the proposal of Captain Wentworth (Ciarán Hinds), but she has never found a more suitable match in the intervening years. When Wentworth returns to town, there are a variety of romantic travails that throw other men and women in their path until they can rekindle their dormant romance.

"Romance" (noun): Two human beings staring awkwardly around themselves while standing several feet apart.

We've encountered plenty of BBC TV movies in our time in the Jane Austen sphere (and even though we're approaching the end of this marathon, there's at least one more coming down the pike - never underestimate the BBC's ability to dig back into that Regency-era costume closet), but this is the first one that's actually just an episode of a television show, specifically anthology movie series Screen Two. Any mention of Screen Two was scrubbed from the publicity material for American release (presumably capitalizing on the success of the aforementioned much more popular Austen projects), but the ghost of its origin remains, if only in the visibly meager budget.

But regardless of its slightly unique creation, I am well trained on how to deal with these BBC TV movie adaptations: by yawning and fluffing my pillow. Persuasion is as flat and affectless in its presentation of Austen's novel as you can get, delivering the dialogue in clipped, dry tones and hustling through all the material it can without raising a fuss. When it's time to go, it makes sure to tidy up a bit and slip quietly out the door. It is not here to challenge, get creative, or even entertain. 

It's an audiobook wearing a frock.

Persuasion does come briefly to life in some of the funnier moments of the novel, the only one presented with any sense of visual flair being a montage of women gossiping to a visibly bored Anne, all while clutching the same color teacup. But it can't even do anything interesting with one of only two scenes in Austen's novels that could considerably be called action scenes: where a young woman falls off a stairway at the beach and hilariously knocks herself into a coma.

This scene is presented in enthrallingly tedious slow motion, without a scrap of music underneath. We just see a woman slowly falling past the screen as if floating in zero gravity, with the non-slow motion  soundscape of seagull squawks and crashing ocean waves not doing anything but reminding you of just how long this shot has been holding.

And while I wouldn't call the performances bad, they certainly aren't delivering enough heaving romance to make the stiffness of their surroundings worth it. Ciarán Hinds is certainly capable of great work, but he isn't asked to do much besides stand stiffly and recite lines in a staid, measured (read: boring) tone. And Amanda Root has fallen into a bad habit of exaggeratedly bulging out her eyes and staring at the people around her. It's like watching a block of wood romancing a surprised owl. 

Jane Austen films can either be funny, romantic, or both. When it has neither, it's not worth watching. And Persuasion isn't nearly funny enough to get over how wan and uninteresting the romance is. It's not the worst straight Austen adaptation I've seen (for my money that's still 1999's Mansfield Park), but it's certainly not one I'm adding to the shelf.

TL;DR: Persuasion is as cheap and bland as a straightforward Austen adaptation can get.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 747
Other Films Based on Persuasion
Persuasion (Michell, 1995)