Metropolitan (1990)

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When a down on his luck student gets taken up by a clique calling themselves The Sally Fowler Rat Pack he sees another aspect of the rarefied debutante season in winter on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Whit Stillman’s warm and deftly witty debut is a low budget surprise (financed by selling his apartment) and based on his own experiences home from college living with his divorced mother back in 1970 (his father had worked for JFK). Tom Townsend (Edward Clements)  is the wan ginger protagonist who used to be a trust fund kid before his parents divorce but now can’t afford a decent overcoat and is still pining for his ex, socialite Serena (Ellia Thompson).  Audrey (Carolyn Farina, a brunette preppie Molly Ringwald) has a crush on him that he doesn’t acknowledge. She’s a passionate Jane Austen fan, he’s only read criticism (that’s a funny exchange). Nick (Chris Eigeman) eggs on his new protege while dissing the very girl he himself is sleeping with; Serena is involved with the awful Rick (Will Kempe); and now Sally Fowler (Dylan Hundley) may be falling for him. Charlie Black (Taylor Nichols) is not convinced that Tom is worthy of Audrey and is the naysayer in the group. But when Audrey and Sally get caught up in a plan to spend time at despicable Rick’s in West Hampton someone has to come riding to the rescue (in a yellow taxi).  This is a very winning comedy of manners  (and the screenplay was given a nod at the Academy Awards) which weaves Austen references in so subtly you get surprised when you see motor cars on the streets of Manhattan. Eigeman is fantastic and gets the lion’s share of the best lines which are mostly thrown away in drifts of sentences so that you have to watch this twice to catch some of them (not a problem). My favourite? Playing strip poker with an exhibitionist somehow takes the challenge away. Bliss.

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Bridget Jones The Edge of Reason (2004)

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Catchy title, eh? And that’s just the start of this film’s problems. Time to revisit given the third in the series has just been released after … a mere dozen years. Helen Fielding herself did the screenplay (with Adam Brooks, Richard Curtis and Andrew Davies) and was presumably induced to make it more ‘cinematic’ and therefore introduces highly implausible elements that occur on foreign trips and Beeban Kidron was also assigned to directing duties. Once again we start at the turkey buffet with Mrs Jones and once again Bridget is ensconced with a non-committal Darcy. Then there’s that rivalry for Bridget’s affections between him and caddish Daniel Cleaver.  In this take on Persuasion we are cast slightly adrift on a ski slope and a Thai prison. It’s not terrible – it’s like second album syndrome – just rather lacking in the raffish charm that marked out the original. Not that this harmed box office receipts. Handled correctly, this could have been more satisfying. Note to makers:  must do better.

Love & Friendship (2016)

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Whit Stillman adapts Jane Austen’s lesser known work, the novella called Lady Susan, and creates a wonderfully coy portrait of a glamorous widow who runs rings around everybody while fomenting rumours, stories and great wodges of gossip and fear everywhere she goes as she tries to find a new husband for herself and to marry off her teenaged daughter. Kate Beckinsale does wonders in this slim tale and her American confidante is Chloe Sevigny, reunited many years after they shot The Last Days of Disco for this NYC auteur. Things lighten up tremendously when daughter Morfydd Clark’s silly suitor Tom Bennett turns up and drives everyone to the edge of sanity with his cluelessness and he’s well played in this typical tale of country house catch chase. The epistolary nature of the source material means that Stillman needed to be creative with the dialogue and aside from the confusing number of people introduced (with helpful sub-titles) there is a thin-ness and repetitiveness to the comedy of manners that is amplified in the credits sequence, where in Hollywood comedy fashion, not out-takes but lines of dialogue are exchanged which would have aided the material immensely: quite why they weren’t in the film’s edit I have no idea. It needed them. It also feels like it was shot on too small a budget and looks a little ropy. Still, Beckinsale is tremendous.

Sense and Sensibility (1995)

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This is the film that turned Jane Austen into a mega-industry. Producer Lindsay Doran asked Emma Thompson to adapt her favourite Austen novel (two female protagonists, lots of action) after they worked together on Dead Again. Five years later, after several handwritten drafts,  input from other actors, and almost losing it all on a laptop, Thompson had forged an ingenious (and Oscar-winning) interpretation making it comprehensible to a modern audience including subtle and necessary changes to push along the narrative. It’s a brilliant disquisition on money, family (first and second), class, courtship rituals and etiquette. With Ang Lee directing in a language and a culture of which he had scant knowledge, the overacting from the ensemble was toned down and a stylish, witty, moving, suspenseful, elegant film was made. It’s a long time since I watched it and it proves just the tonic on a summer’s day when it’s bucketing down.

The Jane Austen Book Club (2007)

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Karen Joy Fowler’s novel was an unexpected delight and tapped into two crucial growth industries – the mania for both Jane Austen and book clubs amongst middle class women about 10 years ago. It might have been created by a focus group, such was its precision. However it is in fact a seamlessly constructed novel, a perfect interrogation of how Austen works and how people see in her stories and characters real parallels with the messy incivility of their contemporary lives.  Six Californians (including a man…)  assemble and each finds their avatar within one of the texts to which the club is dedicated. Writer/director Robin Swicord, who did the adaptation, rather cleverly re-assigns a couple of the books to more appropriately express certain of the characters’ dilemmas. This is a hugely likable, if low-key, piece of work, impressively directed (this was Swicord’s feature debut) and with one standout performance by Emily Blunt who gets to play Prudie, the repressed Chanel-obsessed French teacher pursued by the hot student (Kevin Zegers). We also get to see one of the late Lynn Redgrave’s last feature appearances.This is an exquisitely balanced comic drama and who can argue with Kathy Baker’s mantra, ‘All Jane Austen, all the time!’? Lovely.

Miss Austen Regrets (2008)

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Someone was bound to notice the similarity between Olivia Williams and Greta Scacchi sooner or later. Here they play Jane and her older sister Cassandra. In this episode of Austen’s life she comes to regret some of the things she has written because those in her orbit insist on repeating them back to her in an attempt to explain her state of penury. Her declining health is as nothing compared with the anger of her mother towards her for refusing a money match twenty years earlier and now she herself  is attempting to guide her twenty year old niece to something approaching a marriage based on love. This is smart, subtle and entertaining and a sure sign that the Austen industry is far from done.

Clueless (1995)

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It started as a proposal for a TV pilot, then became a hit movie, then became a TV series. The 1995 film written and directed by Amy Heckerling is a work of such unadulterated charm as to be a rare animal in the Hollywood genus. A Beverly Hills high school reworking of Jane Austen’s Emma, that well-meaning if slightly gormless (but innately intelligent) do-gooder heroine, reinvented as Cher Horowitz, this sweet comedy became an unexpected crowd-pleaser and its dialect entered the modern language.  Alicia Silverstone was a lucky find as Cher:  she is a sheer delight in the role which is silly and sincere and serious in equal measure. It was 20 years ago that it first hit our screens.  It has never left our hearts. As if.