Friday, February 01, 2008

2008, The Year of Jane

I've been watching the ITV versions of 3 of Jane Austen's "lesser" novels, Persuasion, Northanger Abbey, and Mansfield Park. PBS is showing them, as well as the famed Pride & Prejudice miniseries, a biopic on Austen, the Kate Beckinsale Emma, and a new miniseries of Sense & Sensibility.

This run of Austen-made movies has become, for the women of America, a rare sports season. I'm serious - each show aired is endlessly discussed with all the fervor and detail of an AFC Championship game. We deconstruct everything - script, casting, direction, costuming, music. Did the filmmakers "get it right?" Was it equal to/better than pervious versions? How cute was the male romantic lead? Was he too pretty? Were the women's hairstyles correct, or too severe? Was the heroine miscast? Did they leave out too much of the original plot and invent their own storyline?

It is a delicious time for us womenfolk. I make this claim for my gender, since I have discussed the series with over a dozen women, but not a single man has shown the slightest interest.

So here's my rundown so far. I consider myself a worthy critic, having seen almost all known Jane Austen-based movies multiple times, read/listened to all the books, and made a presentation on "Humor in Jane Austen" for the Jane Austen Society here in Nashville.
  • Persuasion

Tepid. The 1995 version starring Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds is such a superior product in every conceivable way, that this poor version never stood a chance. It wasn't a complete wash - Rupert Penry-Jones as Captain Wentworth is such delightful eye-candy that he was almost worth the price of admission. But this production had nothing new to say, and Sally Hawkins (as Anne Eliot) was given an unforgivably severe hairstyle that was a continual distraction.

  • Northanger Abbey

Perfectly delightful! This oft-neglected story has only one other known version, made by the BBC in 1986, and it's so bad that it is best forgotten. But this time they got it right - nicely scripted, good casting, great voiceover narration. I liked everything about this movie. Felicity Jones as Catherine played an absolutely convincing innocent who was engaging rather than cloying. I was really moved by both of the leads.

I have always liked the character of Henry Tilney best of all of the Austen heroes, because he's cheerful, outgoing, funny, smart, and sensible. Darcy would be exhausting, Edward Ferrars, Mr. Knightley, Colonel Brandon, Captain Wentworth, while worthy, are almost interchangeable, and Edmund Bertram is prosy and self-righteous. I loved JJ Feild as Tilney; he reminds me of Lee Pace on Pushing Daisies, and is such an endearing actor! I really look forward to seeing more of him in years to come.

  • Mansfield Park

Well... they tried. This is a hard book to do well, since the core issue of Morality is the motivating factor of the plot, and yet modern sensibilities find the kind of morality in the original book self-righteous, excessive, and essentially boring. Fanny Price is considered such a dishrag of a heroine, that this production's decision to cast the feisty, modern Bille Piper (and I really liked her in Doctor Who!) in the role was understandable, but ill-advised. They simply gave her nothing to do! They took away most of the things that motivated her character, made her hair far too untidy for the period, and expanded the role of the more interesting Mary Crawford. Oh, and they completely stripped Mrs. Norris of her malice and interference, so she was a cipher, quite unnecessary to the storyline.

There's been much contention over the years about the 1999 version written and directed by Patricia Rozema, which has a feminist heroine and debates the morality of slavery, neither of which is in the original book. But I think it's amazingly successful in it's re-envisioning of the story. Fanny and Edmund both need a compelling moral issue to hold onto, and the introduction of the slavery question provided that. Fanny's willpower to do what is right at any cost is reinterpreted as feminism, and I think an effective representation for her strength of character. I personally think this movie does a better job of taking the good bits and expanding them, while strengthening the weaknesses.

I have a question: When will someone do Lady Susan? This is an epistlatory novel Jane wrote fairly early, and is reminiscent of the 18th c. novel form, and far more daring. Lady Susan is evil, manipulative, greedy, and selfish. It reminds me a little of Choderlos de Laclos's Les Liaisons de Dangereuses, and has an entirely different feel than Austen's other works. For some reason, no-one seems to care much for it! But I think it would make an amazing movie. With the demand for Austen works on screen, I'm surprised no-one has snapped this up!

One final thing I want to harp on about... why on earth has PBS decided to do away with the series name of Masterpiece Theater? My TiVo was not prepared for the name change to plain old Masterpiece, and didn't record Persuasion. Why drop the word Theater? The series is ubiquitous, so a change at this point smacks of market-research interference. As if the removal of the word will suddenly make people think, "Oh, this must be better! newer! non-theatrical! NOW I'll watch it!" Just plain stupid.


Anna said...

So, in the spirit of all things Jane, what did you think of the Jane Austen Book Club?

Susania said...

I never did read it or see the movie; apart from like "Bridget Jones Diary" (book, NOT the movie) and "Clueless", I'm not wild about modern attempts at purloining Jane. The book "Austenland" which came out a few months ago was almost nauseatingly bad.