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Bright Star – A Film Review

bright star

Bright Star

It is rare that a film separates potential viewers into two camps so easily as Bright Star, director Jane Campion’s ode to the relationship between John Keats, the great 19th century Romantic poet, and Fanny Brawne, an independent, opinionated Englishwoman whose intellectual curiosity and appreciation for poetry won Keats’ heart. For filmgoers who enjoy lushly filmed, micro-detailed period dramas about star-crossed lovers laboring under oppressive social mores, Bright Star offers an impressive example of the genre, with Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish delivering intense, nuanced performances as the penniless poet and his gentlewoman lover, separated by societal restrictions but united by romantic passion. Campion’s film, which she also wrote, is a bravura example of a director’s refusal to compromise thematic depth and character development for the quicker pace favored in modern media.

For the rest of you, two full hours of heated poetry recitations exchanged between longing gazes and chaste kisses may seem like a life sentence at the Jane Austen Correctional Facility. Make no mistake, while Bright Star is a beautiful film, it is exactly what Campion set out to make: a weighty oil painting depicting the doomed love of a Romance poet and his muse, with liberal doses of quoted verse in the dialogue and a willful disdain for pacing.

In 1818 England, Fanny Brawne (Cornish) enjoys a mild, quiet life with her widowed mother and younger brother and sister. Locally known for her skillful needlework and clothing designs, Brawne presents a protagonist who might have leapt from the pages of Pride and Prejudice: a stubborn, candid girl on the cusp of womanhood, too intelligent and self-reliant to be satisfied with her lot in the patriarchal world of Georgian England. Her family, though not wealthy, enjoys a sufficient income to move among the artistic and intellectual social circles of 19th century British society, where Brawne meets talented but impoverished poet John Keats. Keats, a brooding young man, becomes intrigued by Brawne’s earnest curiosity over how to “work out poems” as she puts it, as if each verse were a puzzle for her amusement. Through a confluence of circumstances, Keats’ colleague and financial benefactor, fellow poet Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider), lets rooms next door to Brawne’s home, with Keats and Brown setting up shop to collaborate on their work almost literally under the nose of Keats’ inquisitive admirer.

Brawne seizes the opportunity to study poetry with Keats, and love soon blossoms as her innate romantic nature awakens to the husky-voiced ministrations of Keats’ soulful rhythms and imagery. In turn, Brawne’s blunt humor and intellectual adventurousness lift Keats out of a dry patch in his writing, inspiring him to create new works, including the sonnet devoted to Brawne from which Bright Star takes its title. Keats and Brawne become near-constant companions despite stern opposition from both Brawne’s mother, who admonishes her daughter that she cannot marry a man with “no income and no prospects,” and Brown, who perceives Brawne as a parasitic socialite distracting Keats from his calling as an oracle of romantic truth. A far greater obstacle soon presents itself, however, when Keats takes seriously ill with tuberculosis, which had already claimed his brother at a young age.

For period drama lovers, Bright Star offers numerous arresting images, and the cinematography and scene construction are two of the film’s greatest strengths, relying as much on sumptuous visual metaphors of passionate romantic love as on dialogue. During one of Keats’ occasional absences, Brawne lies on her bed pining for his return, flush with the passion of first love. A breeze ruffles through an open window, rippling under Brawne’s skirts and up her legs while sunlight gently plays across her white dress. If there were any doubt about the blooming of Brawne’s nascent sexuality, it disappears as the contrasting thrill of a cool breeze and warm sunlight heralds a passionate new influence on the ripening girl. In another beautifully constructed scene, after Brawne receives a letter from Keats comparing their love to two butterflies, Brawne puts her brother and sister to work catching dozens of butterflies with which to fill Brawne’s room while she awaits Keats’ return; beneath the elegant surface beauty of the resulting fluttering menagerie, the image suggests the delicate stomach of a young lover, filled with imaginary butterflies. The costuming, excellent all around, provides additional visual context, and Cornish’s wardrobe is particularly eye-catching, representing Brawne’s own suppressed artistic ambitions finding expression through needle and fabric as opposed to pen and paper.

To the extent Bright Star has a significant weakness as cinema, the film suffers from a choppy editing hand, manifesting itself in an uneven narrative structure which occasionally leaves one wondering what exactly is going on. Characters absent themselves mysteriously, coming and going based on narrative events which are not always clear. Campion also doesn’t consistently navigate the complicated social rituals of 19th century England in a way which would allow a 21st century viewer to fully comprehend why a particular action or assertion might be taken as a slight. Problems with editing continuity stand out in a film like Bright Star, which depends mightily on luring the viewer into the room with the characters while the plot meanders through their interactions. When the narrative jumps because of an apparent disconnect in motivation or logic, the effect is a little jarring.

The uniformly excellent cast provides a strong foundation, however, and while Bright Star occasionally staggers under its own weight, the leads and the supporting actors keep the film upright and moving, albeit at a glacial pace. Cornish and Whishaw both take roles that threaten to become stifling and turn them into a focused reverie on the nature of romantic love in an era when the worth of a marriage turned on economic security and matches of appropriate station. Among the supporting players, Schneider in particular is a standout, stealing several scenes as Keats’ complicated and temperamental friend Brown, by turns arrogant, loving, bullying, and hilarious. Although afforded less screen time, child actor Edie Martin provides a welcome counterweight as Brawne’s sister Toots, a pale, wide-eyed elf with curly strawberry-blonde hair and a penchant for blurting out amusingly candid observations. Kerry Fox, best known for smart, sexy roles in movies like Shallow Grave, is almost unrecognizable as the widow Brawne, performing well in the thankless role of Shapeless English Matron.

Yet Bright Star relies most on Whishaw and Cornish to do the heavy lifting, and they do not disappoint. Their portrayals of Keats and Brawne avoid a hazard common to the genre, i.e., the ostensible passionate love affair that more closely resembles cloying, self-absorbed infatuation. Instead, they find a credible chemistry and tone to bind together their romance, creating a sensation that should resonate strongly with anyone who ever pair-bonded over “thoughts that breathe, and words that burn,” to borrow from poet Thomas Gray. In staying true to her own vision, Campion takes a brave stand by making a film that is uncompromising in its insistent focus on the depths of the characters and the minute details of their lives, at the expense of modern filmmaking convention. Bright Star requires a certain patience, but the payoff is worth the wait.


Ted Boynton is usually picked last for kickball, mostly because he treats it as an opportunity to lounge in the outfield with a bottle of rye and a Lone Star — there’s no “I” in “team,” but there are at least two in “inebriation.” Ted also manages to hold down a job and a wife, three hours each per day, whether they need it or not.

Originally written October 6, 2009, and reprinted with permission from http://www.pajiba.com

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Emma (2009) on Masterpiece Classic: A Review

A review by Laurel Ann Nattress

“Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” Sage advice from the philosophizing Forrest Gump. The same can be said of Jane Austen adaptations. Last nights US premiere of screenwriter Sandy Welch’s newly retooled Emma on Masterpiece Classic had its mix of nuts, chews and soft centers. Most viewers will be tempted to consume it quickly like the beautifully crafted confection that it is. I prefer to take a small bite first to see what I’m getting.

Emma may very well be the last Jane Austen adaptation (or any other bonnet drama) that we see on television for quite some time (now available to purchase online here). The BBC is feigning Austen fatigue after years of milking the almighty cash cow. Since 2005 we have been treated to a new major movie or television production of each of Jane Austen’s six major novels. Emma (2009) completes the set. Time to bring on the reality television and grittier fare. So speaketh auntie Beeb. Because of their partnership with the BBC, Masterpiece PBS is hooked into their decisions too, though I suspect with more regret than they will admit since Executive Producer Rebecca Eaton remarked last week “We are not stupid: Jane Austen is catnip to our audience.”

This new Emma has almost everything that this bonnet drama geek could hope for in an Austen film adaptation: four hours to develop the story to its fullest, beautiful, beautiful production values, a seasoned and award winning screenwriter and a cast dappled with some of Britain’s finest veteran actors and up and coming stars. What’s not to like? How could it go wrong? Let me extol upon its many charms and a few foibles.

As host Laura Linney began her introduction, I was waiting for her to pop in Jane Austen’s famous ironic remark about Emma Woodhouse, “a heroine no one but myself will much like.” She did not disappoint. Over the centuries Emma has had her share of advocates and adversaries. She is actually a bit of a pill. Handsome, clever and rich with nothing to vex her, she is not one of Austen’s typical financially challenged heroines. There in lies the rub. We are not in the least sympathetic to her situation, and in fact, quite annoyed by her self-deluded notions of merrily matchmaking for her friends with disastrous results. In the three previous adaptations of Emma, we have seen her portrayed as an elegant toffee-nosed snob by Doran Godwin in 1972, an immature busybody by Kate Beckinsale and a mischievous altruist by Gwyneth Paltrow in 1996. Now Romola Garai has been passed the baton and plays it close to Austen’s intensions, but with thrice the emotion.

Emma (2009) might just surpass the venerable 1995 Pride and Prejudice in superior production values. It is a visual delight, skillfully crafted by a gifted production team of designer Stevie Herbert and art director Pilar Foy. Bravo. The stately Regency-era homes chosen to stand-in for the Woodhouse estate of Hartfield (Squerryes Court, Kent), Mr. Knightley’s residence at Donwell Abbey (Loseley Park, Guildford, Surrey) and the village of Highbury (Chilham, Kent) elegantly and historically set the stage for all of the other production elements.

The costumes designed by Rosalind Ebbutt may not have been completely period accurate as to color, but the coordination of color schemes to the set of actors in a scene and within the room it was filmed in was stunning. I particularly appreciated Emma Woodhouse’s lovely pale coral evening gown and Harriet Smith’s virginally white frock at the Crown Inn Ball. Ebbutt has a keen eye for accessories and her use of jewelry and shawls was striking, but sadly I was quite disappointed in the bonnets which tended to be too droopy and not quite as refined and highly fashioned as one would wish. Highbury is in the country, but the elegant Miss Woodhouse can still be allowed a bit of London millinery foppery. The gentleman’s attire was tolerable, though I admit to feeling more than a bit embarrassed by the cut of Mr. Knightley’s waistcoat in one scene that made him look rather like he was twelve and in need of ten years to grow into it. Many of the actors have director of photography Adam Suschitzky to thank for making them look glowingly elegant and refined. Ladies never look so fine as by candle light and the interior evening scenes of the Woodhouse dinner party, the Christmas eve dinner at Randalls and the Ball at the Crown Inn were particularly flattering.

When I read the original casting announcements I was a bit surprised by some of the choices. I had been rooting for Richard Armitage as Mr. Knightley and could envision no other in his stead. When the part was given to Jonny Lee Miller, I was crestfallen. On the other hand, I was pleased by the selection of Romola Garai as Miss Woodhouse. I had enjoyed her performances in I Capture the Castle and Atonement and thought her a talented young actress. Interestingly, I would change my position on each of the leads, resisting Miller at first, then growing to admire his comedic timing while accepting Garai immediately until her overplay of emotion with eye popping and exaggerated facial expressions was totally distracting. I will admit though, that she did improve upon acquaintance. As Miss Woodhouse matured through the course of the narrative, so did my respect for her.

Among the secondary characters that stood out most in this large ensemble cast was Louise Dylan as Emma’s dear friend and plaything Harriet Smith. Happily she did not play Harriet as a complete airhead as we have seen in the past by Toni Collette in the 1996 Gwyneth Paltrow version. I am Miss Smith’s warmest admirer of her character in the novel and always cast a critical eye on her portrayal in adaptations. Ms. Dylan filled the part emotionally, but she looked a tad bit more than 17 to Romola who did not look 21 either, so there you have it. On the comedy/tragedy front Tamsin Greig’s interpretation of the garrulous Miss Bates was really heart wrenching to experience in opposition to the ditzy and dotty versions by Sophie Thompson or Prunella Scales in the two 1996 Emma productions. She made me cry at the Box Hill picnic scene. You could really feel her fear and trepidation as a spinster living in genteel poverty at the mercy of the kindness of her neighbors the Woodhouse’s and Mr. Knightey. Blake Ritson gave us a Mr. Elton that I had not thought possible, but I enjoyed. Austen had described him as handsome, which Mr. Ritson certainly is, but I had thought of him as more of a toad than a suave charmer.

My greatest disappointments in characterization were Mr. Woodhouse, Mrs. Elton, Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill. Michael Gambon who portrayed Mr. Woodhouse is a legend. He was given little to say and looked way too healthy for the part of a valetudinarian who is frightened by a piece of cake. Christina Cole as the vulgar Mrs. Elton missed the mark completely. Since social rank in marriage was everything in Regency society, she is far too pretty to play a rich woman who would accept a country vicar as a husband. In addition, her delivery of some of Austen’s most brilliantly biting lines was decidedly flat. Laura Pyper as the reserved Miss Jane Fairfax was a beautiful and accomplished foil for Miss Woodhouse, but too demure for my sensibilities. I liked Olivia William’s edgier kettle ready to boil over containment in the 1996 version. Ah Frank Churchill. Rupert Evans looked the part and spoke the part, but he did not live the part. No one in my estimation has yet to fill those boots with enough oozing charm and decided deception.

Now for the cream as Emma says to Harriet. Was this a faithful adaptation of Jane Austen’s masterpiece of characterization and biting social commentary? Hardly. Screenwriter Sandy Welch has taken the bones of Austen’s brilliant story and padded it with her own words. Very little of Austen’s amazing language remains. A few quotes here and there, but this is entirely her own imagining. Director Jim O’Hanlon has built upon that premise and interjected a totally different tone and energy to Austen’s original subtle and underplayed story that some of her adversaries have said is about nothing. Possibly they felt it was also about nothing and needed to modernize it with heightened emotion and darker depths. Austen revealed in the first chapter of Emma that ‘The real evils, indeed, of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much her own way.’ Ironically, this Emma could have been perfection if the screenwriter and director had heeded Miss Austen’s warning and not used their power to go their own way. As Austen adaptations go, this nonsensical Emma is the best of the last six supplied, but I still feel we have a way to go in interpreting Austen faithfully to the screen. Was it enjoyable? Certainly. Will I watch it again? Without hesitation.


A life-long acolyte of Jane Austen, Laurel Ann Nattress is the editor of Austenprose a blog devoted to the writing of her favorite author and the many books and movies that she has inspired. Classically trained as a landscape designer at California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo, she has also worked in marketing for a Grand Opera company and at present she delights in introducing neophytes to the charms of Miss Austen’s prose as a bookseller at Barnes & Noble. An expatriate of southern California, Laurel Ann lives near Seattle, Washington where it rains a lot.

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Sense and Sensibility Goes Gothic

Sir Walter Scott confessed that, although he could write action adventure novels “like any now going,” he lacked Jane Austen’s genius, “the exquisite touch, which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting.” Filmmakers should take note. Infusing an Austen novel with testosterone does not make it better, and the 2008 BBC Sense and Sensibility seems to prove the point.

The made for TV Sense and Sensibility develops the story of the male characters and emphasizes the building antagonism between Colonel Brandon (David Morrissey) and John Willoughby (Dominic Cooper). Granted, Austen’s Sense and Sensibility alludes to the sad fate of Eliza Williams and mentions a duel, presumably with pistols, but Austen dwells on neither event, as they do not forward her main story, the plight of the Dashwoods. However, Eliza (Caroline Hayes) and the duel feature prominently in the three hour film as Colonel Brandon takes center stage. So much refocusing on Sense and Sensibility’s male characters requires the invention of new scenes and a great deal of dialogue that Jane Austen never wrote, such as the “a word with you in private, Mr. Willoughby” scene early in the film, which clearly identifies Brandon as a stricken, Byronic hero and Willoughby as a dyed in the wool villain. But why give away so much so soon?

Jane Austen’s Willoughby is a charm merchant, simultaneously deceiving Marianne, the other characters and the first time reader with his winning ways. We are puzzled by his odd behavior, shocked to learn of his duplicity and surprised by his confession. In complete contrast, the film’s Willoughby oozes onto the screen, slides about like Edmund Blackadder and then exits leaving a slug trail behind. The clear delineation between Brandon and Willoughby reduces the plot to a standard contest between good and evil with Eliza Williams and Marianne Dashwood as pawns to be won or lost by the contending males. When Willoughby snubs Marianne in London, the Dashwood sisters fade from the screen as the camera lingers on Brandon’s glare of seething hatred. The scene is clearly Brandon’s, but, in Austen’s novel, Brandon is not even present at the ball. When the Brandon/Willoughby feud finally builds up to the sword fight, yes, sword fight, it feels more like watching Russell Crowe’s Master and Commander than an adaptation of an Austen novel. But in the midst of all of this swashbuckling and male bravado, we must not lose track of Edward Ferrars, who has transformed beyond recognition from the Edward of Austen’s book.

Austen’s Edward is shy, socially awkward and “not handsome.” Additionally, “his manners required intimacy to make them pleasing.” But there’s none of that in Dan Stevens’ Edward Ferrars. From his first appearance in the invented carpet beating scene, Edward is witty, articulate, confident and flashing a charming smile. Edward’s depression and “want of spirits” in the novel are replaced with anger which he unleashes on the Dashwoods’ wood pile, in the rain. It is an odd business.

No doubt, the BBC filmmakers felt the pressure of adapting Austen’s novel in the wake of the tremendous success of Emma Thompson’s 1995 Sense and Sensibility and attempted to create something different. Thus, it appears a bit strange that Elinor Dashwood (Hattie Morahan) seems to have borrowed Emma Thompson’s voice, and Marianne Dashwood (Charity Wakefield) has Kate Winslet’s hair. As in Thompson’s film, we see the courtship of Elinor through Edward’s winning over of an adorable Margaret (in this case Lucy Boynton), and Colonel Brandons in both films seem inclined to rescue their Mariannes from torrential rainstorms and carry them about, none of which takes place in Austen’s novel. One has to feel sympathy for Morahan and Wakefield, following in the footsteps as they do of BAFTA and Academy Award winning actresses in the same roles. And the women’s parts have changed very little, so it sometimes seems that we are watching the Thompson film with stand-ins. However, both actresses perform admirably.

The first half of the film doesn’t quite make it to the end of Austen’s first volume, one third of the story, which probably explains why most of Austen’s other characters have been cut to the bone. Janet McTeer is particularly sympathetic as Mrs. Dashwood. The shameless John Dashwood (Mark Gatiss) and his appalling wife Fanny (Claire Skinner) are appropriately odious, and their gluttonous son (Morgan Overton) is the perfect embodiment of his parents’ insatiable greed. Mrs. Jennings (Linda Bassett) is little more than a plot device, and Lucy Steele (Anna Madeley) is also reduced to necessity. Sir John Middleton (Mark Williams), Lady Middleton (Rosanna Lavelle), Robert Ferrars (Leo Bill), Mr. Palmer (Tim McMullan) and the garrulous Charlotte (Tabitha Wady) are given cameo appearances and a very few lines. Jean Marsh is perfect as the obnoxious Mrs. Ferrars, and Daisy Haggard was an unexpected treat as the dimwitted Nancy Steele. Alas, their screen time is all too short, and when Austen’s minor characters go, they take their humour with them.

The windswept scenery is dramatic and beautiful, though more Bronte’s Wuthering Heights than Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, and nature seems to be yet another dangerous character. In the novel, Marianne’s illness is brought on from walking in tall grass and sitting in her wet shoes and stockings. In the film, Marianne has a death wish and deliberately exposes herself to the elements in an open field during a thunder storm where she is lashed by rain, soaked to the skin and possibly struck by lightning. A seduction, a rescue, a sword fight, jealousy, betrayal, obsession, hatred, revenge, it’s all a bit over the top, but no doubt Northanger Abbey’s Catherine Morland would have enjoyed it.

Sheryl Craig is an Instructor at the University of Central Missouri. She is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Kansas.

Sense and Sensibility is available in DVD format from our online giftshop!

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Miss Austen Regrets: An “Imagined” Biography

Miss Austen Regrets

I am greatly pleased with your account of Fanny; I found her in the summer just what you describe, almost another sister; and could not have supposed that a niece would ever have been so much to me. She is quite after one’s own heart; give her my best love, and tell her that I always think of her with pleasure.
Jane Austen to Cassandra
October 7, 1808

The problem with biopics about Jane Austen is that there is so much that isn’t known for sure that at least part of the story will have to be fiction. In itself, that is not a problem, unless either the fiction is presented as truth or if the fiction is the kind of adolescent romantic twaddle that Jane Austen herself would have abhorred. Becoming Jane failed on both of those counts, and while Miss Austen Regrets does not succeed spectacularly, it is almost the Jane Austen biopic that many Janeites have hoped for.

Olivia Williams is excellent as Jane Austen approaching her fortieth birthday. Sharply intelligent, sarcastic and funny but still warm-hearted: yes, this is the woman who could have created Mary Crawford and Lucy Steele and Augusta Elton. What a joy to see Jane Austen not a pathetic lonely-heart spinster but a woman who had opportunities to marry but clear-sightedly chose to remain single and pursue a career. We see her take a shrewd interest in the business of authorship, switching publishers to one that will get her more exposure and work more closely with her, and taking full advantage of professional opportunities such as cultivating her brother’s physician’s relationship to the Price Regent.

It also was lovely to see Jane as part of a large family, the close relationship with Cassandra, the mutual support system with her brothers, and Mrs. Austen portrayed not as a Mrs. Bennet clone but as an intelligent if difficult woman whose younger daughter was a genius. The idea that Cassandra would have talked Jane out of marrying Harris Bigg-Wither has occurred to us as well, though many viewers took away the idea that Cassandra did so because she was afraid of being alone; our impression was that Cassandra did not want Jane to marry a man she did not love for her sake. (After all, if Jane had married for security, presumably Cassandra would have gone to live with Jane and her husband.)

Alas, the 90-minute running time (less after the cuts required by Masterpiece Classics) was not sufficient to develop the story or even many of the characters to our satisfaction. We know from Jane Austen’s letters that she enjoyed a glass of wine, but crawling around in the shrubbery three sheets to the wind was a bit much. Jane Austen sitting by the fire, inhibitions relaxed by a glass or two of something from the Godmersham cellars, and holding forth hilariously to Fanny on the gentleman present is much closer to our mental picture. And while we can fully appreciate a mature Jane being interested in an attractive, intelligent younger man who compliments her “darling children,” we think she would have maintained a firmer and more realistic perspective on such a relationship, and rejoiced in such a man showing interest in her favorite niece (and we think her letters bear us out).

We also have quibbles with some of the clothing. Jane Austen was mostly dressed in shapeless tunic-like dresses that were rather low-cut in daytime. And we said aloud a few too many times, “What the Ferrars does she have on her head?” The hats were just strange and she almost never was shown in the spinster’s cap that she adopted in her twenties. We do long for the days when costumers took fierce pride in historical correctness! When the clothes are not right, the knowledgeable viewer is distracted from the story. And we had regrets of our own that it couldn’t have been worked out somehow to shoot the film in Chawton, so familiar to so many Janeites, though we understand that the logistics involved would have been a tremendous hurdle for producers to overcome, especially for a television film.

Ultimately, the title of the film becomes almost a question instead of a statement: Did Miss Austen have regrets? And we are shown that any regrets she did have were not those the romantics could wish for: she yearned not for love, but for time. And while we could have wished for a little more from Miss Austen Regrets, after some of the overly-romanticized films related to Jane and her work that we have suffered through over the past couple of years, that in itself might be considered a triumph.

Miss Austen Regrets premiered on PBS on February 3, 2008. It has a runtime of 90 minutes, including an introduction from Gillian Anderson. Miss Austen Regrets is availble at our online giftshop. Click here.

Margaret C. Sullivan is a writer and the editrix of Austenblog.com. Her recent book, The Jane Austen Handbook: A Sensible Yet Elegant Guide to Her World can be found in our giftshop. She is also the author of, There Must be Murder, a continuation of Northanger Abbey.

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Almost Persuaded: ITV’s Persuasion

Persuasion 2007

The game is afoot in ITV’s Persuasion as Anne Elliot (Sally Hawkins) speed walks down a maze of hallways in Kellynch and jogs down the streets of Bath in what was, presumably, the film makers’ attempt to add action and energy to Jane Austen’s posthumously published 1817 classic. No doubt, the film’s creators felt challenged by a novel with more substance than could possibly be squeezed into a 90 minute time frame and by the precedent of the critically acclaimed 1995 Persuasion which set the standard for Jane Austen film adaptations very high indeed. Screenplay writer Simon Burke and director Adrian Shergold resorted to some rather desperate maneuvers to make this version unpredictable and a bit surprising, but their stratagems were not always successful. Some of the camera work is dizzying, and, at the conclusion of the film, when the compressed plot finally implodes, the viewer may well be left confused as to what just happened and why. If you are searching for an adaptation that is accurate to Jane Austen’s novel, this is not it, but, standing alone as a film, Persuasion has much to recommend it.

Sally Hawkins has a sweet, open face, and, like Amanda Root, those large, liquid eyes inspire the viewer to sympathize with her. Ms. Hawkins cries very convincingly. As she is in nearly every scene and has a great many close-up shots, the film proves something of a showcase for Hawkins, who held up remarkably well, not only as an actor but as an athlete. Eventually, the viewer forgives the ITV Captain Wentworth (Rupert Penry-Jones) for not being Ciaran Hinds, but it’s difficult to imagine a pretty boy like Penry-Jones commanding a battleship of hardened seamen in the Napoleonic Wars.

The sets and scenery are splendid, one can never grow tired of Bath, the costumes charming, and the supporting cast talented, but Jane Austen’s sense of humour appears to have been lost somewhere along the way, a damning criticism to be sure, and following hard on the heels of ITV’s clever and witty Northanger Abbey, one was encouraged to hope for better. And more’s the pity, as Austen supplied plenty of humour in the novel. In this film, Sir Walter (Anthony Head), Elizabeth Elliot (Julia Davis) and Mary Musgrove (Amanda Hale) are more appalling than funny, and some of their best lines were cut, such as Mary Musgrove’s immortal whine: “If there is anything disagreeable going on men are always sure to get out of it.” Who is responsible for such an omission?

Mr. and Mrs. Musgrove (Nicholas Farrell & Stella Gonet), Charles (Sam Hazeldine), Louisa (Jennifer Higham), Henrietta (Rosamund Stephen) and the Crofts (Peter Wight & Marion Bailey) are given minimal dialogue, and perhaps the time constraints demanded some neglect of their characters, but there are other inexplicable changes. While Captain Benwick (Finlay Robertson) is reduced to little more than a plot device, if you blink you may miss him entirely, Captain Harville (Joseph Mawle) becomes a matchmaker. Mr. Elliot (Tobias Menzies) is an obvious cad from the start, an arrogant, impudent puppy of the highest order, and yet the otherwise prudent and overly cautious Lady Russell (Alice Krige) recommends him to Anne. Why? Unfortunately, Lady Russell’s judgment is not the only lapse of common sense in this film.

What about the invalid Mrs. Smith’s (Maisie Dimbleby) unexplained and miraculous cure which not only allows her to rise from her bed and walk but to sprint down the street calling out the latest gossip like the town crier? And how did Kellynch Hall, an entailed estate under lease to a tenant, suddenly become available for purchase? But, apparently, these are minor details and should arouse neither curiosity nor interest. We are merely the viewers. Ours is not to question why, or to question at all. We are, presumably, to be bowled over by the love story, to care about nothing else and to sit back and enjoy a painfully prolonged build up to a kiss and an impromptu waltz on the lawn. The good news is that the ITV Persuasion seems to improve on subsequent viewings. The trick is in forgiving it for being neither Jane Austen’s novel nor the 1995 film. Aye, there’s the rub.

Persuasion was filmed on location in Bath and Lyme Regis. The film was shown in March on ITV in Britain and is available at our online giftshop. Click here.

Sheryl Craig is an Instructor of English at Central Missouri State University. She is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Kansas.

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Becoming Jane: Becoming Fictional

Prior knowledge of Jane Austen’s life
will not enhance the viewer’s enjoyment of the film.”

 

Becoming Jane is not really about Jane Austen. Becoming is about us and our Austen- inspired, time travel fantasies. Through the artistry of costume and set designers, whose efforts must be applauded, Becoming may achieve the outward appearance of Regency England, but do not be deceived. The film is a collection of modern attitudes, assumptions, whimsy, values and prejudices playing dress up.

A willful, impulsive, self confident, aspiring career girl, the Jane Austen of Becoming Jane (Anne Hathaway) is a twenty-first century woman in a pretty frock who inevitably finds herself at odds with the archaic society in which she has been placed. Thoroughly modern Jane naturally rebels and “setting propriety at nought” proceeds to indulge in some extremely unlikely behavior, exactly the same activities which Austen cautions against in her novels. But this is a material point in understanding the film.

Predicated on the notion that art imitates life, Becoming Jane assumes that Jane Austen, her family, friends and acquaintances must have inspired the characters, spoken the lines and enacted the plot twists of Austen’s novels. Thus, Becoming’s Jane Austen is a Frankenstein combination of Catherine Morland’s admiration of Ann Radcliffe (Helen McCrory), Marianne Dashwood’s excessive romanticism, Emma Woodhouse’s self assurance, Anne Elliot’s indecision and Lydia Bennet’s impulsivity. You will note that these traits are the weaknesses of Austen’s fictional characters, not their strengths. The result of this weird alchemy of flaws is someone strangely familiar because she is so… us. Hathaway attempts to speak with an English accent, but she really needn’t have bothered. It’s obviously not Jane Austen under that bonnet.

The film’s love interest, bad boy Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy), is another Regency misfit. A lazy, disgruntled, playboy student who fancies himself an athlete, Lefroy makes an arrogant, Mr. Darcy first impression. But Lefroy turns out to be John Willoughby, a self-indulgent libertine who plans to marry for money all along but who falls in love with Miss Penniless in spite of himself. Lefroy’s fate is Sense and Sensibility’s version of rough justice.

The rest of Becoming’s cast is a mixed bag of Austen’s minor characters. Not quite equal to the stoicism of Elinor Dashwood, the resignation of Jane Bennet or the fortitude of Fanny Price, Austen’s sister Cassandra (Anna Maxwell Martin) deals with her loss with admirable self-control, and Mr. Austen (James Cromwell) is a surprisingly lusty Mr. Bennet. Mrs. Austen (Julie Walters) begins as a Mrs. Bennet scold but develops into Lady Russell dispensing well intended though unsolicited advice. Austen’s fictional admirer Mr. Wisley (Laurence Fox) also serves double duty, first as a Mr. Collins “booby” but later emerging as a long suffering and sympathetic Colonel Brandon who never gets his Marianne. The happily-ever-after ending goes to Austen’s brother Henry (Joe Anderson) and her cousin Eliza (Lucy Cohu) who eventually emerge from the church as man and wife but only after a good deal of pre-marital impropriety.

No film with Maggie Smith and Ian Richardson can be all bad. Smith’s Lady Grishom/Lady Catherine was predictably sour and amusing, and Richardson’s Judge Langlois/Sir Thomas Bertram, deciding the fates of criminals and nephews with equal deliberation and dispatch, was the most interesting character in the film. But, indeed, the entire cast did their best with the parts they were given.

There’s no denying that Becoming Jane is a feast for the eyes. Although not Austen’s rural Hampshire, the Irish scenery is lovely. With the complexion of a Royal Doulton figurine, Hathaway herself is beautiful to behold. The costumes and sets were meticulously constructed, and there are horses, carriages and Georgian architecture aplenty. A lot of time and attention went into the making of this film, and it seems to have so many of the right ingredients, but Becoming Jane is ultimately lacking a vital force. The spirit was willing, but the script was weak.


This film is rated PG for brief nudity and mild language (edited for re-rating; initially was rated PG-13). Becoming Jane is open in theaters around the world. Check local listings for showtimes. Also visit the Becoming Jane Fansite for historical articles and other film information.

Sheryl Craig is an Instructor of English at Central Missouri State University. She is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Kansas.

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Barbara Cartland’s Mansfield Park

The 2007 made-for-television film Mansfield Park is not to be confused with Jane Austen’s 1814 novel of the same name. Like Lydia Bennet’s marriage, the ITV Park is “a patched up business.”

The best scenes are William Price (Joseph Morgan) dancing a hornpipe and newlyweds Fanny (Billie Piper) and Edmund (Blake Ritson) waltzing on the lawn. In short, the film relies on comely actors, music, dance, Regency-inspired costumes and a beautiful set. If such inducements are enough to sustain you, gentle reader, then you will not be disappointed. Those of us with an affinity for Austen’s book expect more, but, unfortunately, this film was inspired by Barbara Cartland, not Jane Austen.

For instance, Billie Piper is a saucy wench. With bold eyes, unruly hair and full lips formed into a perpetual pout, Ms. Piper glares at the viewer from the plastic DVD case. Precariously stuffed into a straining corset and plunging neckline, one deep breath would expose her…. to ridicule, the sultry lass is both expensively and nakedly dressed. But, thus endowed and thus attired, why was Ms. Piper cast to play “creep mouse” Fanny Price, an extremely timid and rather prudish young woman destined to marry her cousin, the local clergyman? It was like casting Marilyn Monroe to play Mother Theresa, without allowing for a costume change. So who is this character who paces to and fro, races through the halls, gallops down the stairways and compulsively tosses her head in a futile attempt to get her hair out of her eyes? There is a certain appeal, a vulnerability, that is winning, but it is not Jane Austen’s Fanny Price.

And we all know Mrs. Norris would never allow such a wanton hussy to take up residence in Mansfield Park. After one defiant glance in her direction, Aunt Norris would have Billie Piper packed off to Portsmouth on the first stagecoach headed south. But Fanny never travels to Portsmouth in this version, and Fanny’s Aunt Norris (Maggie O”Neill) is largely and regrettably edited out, making possible the late night heart-to-hearts between Fanny and Edmund, in Fanny’s bedroom, in Fanny’s nightgown.


Granted, the novel Mansfield Park features women of easy virtue, the adulterous Maria Rushworth, the flirtatious Mary Crawford and Julia Bertram who bolts for Gretna Green at the earliest opportunity with the first man who asks her, but Jane Austen’s Fanny Price is made of sterner stuff and we are made to know it. The actresses who portray Maria (Michelle Ryan), Mary (Hayley Atwell) and Julia (Catherine Steadman) do very well with the little they are given, but there’s the rub. They are not given enough. Henry Crawford (Joseph Beattie) is another well cast victim. Sir Thomas (Douglas Hodge) and Lady Bertram (Jemma Redgrave) undergo personality changes as well. In every imaginable way, the complexity of the novel was ruthlessly sacrificed in order to condense the film down to a fairly simple boy meets girl plot, but the real betrayal of Jane Austen was in the sacrifice of the moral of the story.

Jane Austen’s Fanny Price is not yearning for adventure. She is longing for safety and security, for permanence, for a home at Mansfield Park. The reader sympathizes with Miss Price because Fanny is long suffering and downtrodden, not because she can barely be repressed. ITV’s Fanny Price wants romance, and she smolders with desire, the very impulses that are the ruin of Maria Rushworth in Austen’s novel. So the moral lesson of Austen’s book is discarded for simplicity: Love conquers all. Well, it is no doubt easier to compress into 90 minutes and requires so little of the viewer. Perhaps it is what many people want to see, but the ITV Mansfield Park is not a classic adaptation of a timeless English novel. It is a cheap paperback with the obligatory bodice ripping cover. Don’t expect anyone to be watching in 200 years.

Manfield Park was filmed at Newby Hall & Gardens, Ripon, North Yorkshire. The film was shown in March on ITV in Britain and is available on Region 2 DVD. In the US, PBS’ Masterpiece Theatre has announced “The Complete Jane Austen“, a four-month program beginning January 2008 showcasing adaptations for all six novels plus the new biopic Miss Austen Regrets..

Sheryl Craig is an Instructor of English at Central Missouri State University. She is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Kansas.

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Northanger Abbey 2007: The Continuing Saga

Another Jane Austen novel is being dusted off for the big screen. This time, Miramax films is co-producing Northanger Abbey. It’s a $9 million feature adaptation of Jane Austen’s first published novel. Shooting begins this fall in Bath, an historic city to about 150 kilometres southwest of London and well-known to Austen. Bath is noted for its handsome 18th century architecture.
May 25, 1998 CBC Infoculture

Such was the news in 1998. Now, nearly ten years later, Northanger Abbey has finally made it to film, albeit on the small screen. The story of how it finally made it to television is not unlike Jane Austen’s original difficulty in having her book published!

The manuscript for Northanger Abbey (written, according to Cassandra Austen, in 1798-99) was sold by the Rev. Austen to Richard Crosby & Co. in 1803 under the title Susan. It was the first of Austen’s stories to be sold and commanded the princely sum of £10. It is clear that Crosby & Co. had no idea of its value. Though they advertised it as a forthcoming work, they let it rest on their shelves, unread and unpublished. After the sale of Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen was at liberty to buy back her work, though under an assumed name. Crosby & Co. should never know how close they came to success.

After retouching the work and writing a preface explaining to her readers why they might find some of her story antiquated, she set the work aside. Though Austen called the work Miss Catherine in private, it would not be printed until after her death in 1817, when it was retitled Northanger Abbey and bundled, by her brother Henry, into a four volume set which also included Persuasion.

Andrew Davies was first noted by Jane Austen fans for his Emmy nominated adaptation of Pride and Prejudice(1995) and Jane Austen’s Emma in 1996. The idea for writing one of Jane Austen’s works came after previewing the 1986 version of Northanger Abbey. He remembers the evening well: ‘It was an interesting, quirky adaptation and afterwards Sue [Birtwistle – Producer of Pride and Prejudice and Emma] turned to me and said: “I know what I’d like to do: Pride and Prejudice and make it look like a fresh, lively story about real people…..Would you like to adapt it?” It’s a favorite book of mine, so I said, “Yes,” and that was that.’

Regarding Jane Austen’s works, Davies says, “there is a certain amount of liberty that you can take. You can’t change the actual story, but there’s always some hidden scenes in the book that Austen didn’t get around to writing herself, and it’s nice to fill in some of the little gaps.” Davies says he had great material to work with, since Austen “writes the best plots and characters, and her dialogue is terrific. So while there’s this little craze I’m just going to take advantage of it for all I’m worth.”

Northanger Abbey was his third attempt scripting one of Jane Austen’s novels and fans around the world eagerly awaited the fruit of his labor. As Austen biographer Deirdre Le Faye put it, “The 1986 version was awful. Andrew Davies certainly could not do worse than that.”


By 1998, Davies had written a script for ITV which was then purchased by Miramax Pictures, producers of Emma and the soon to be released Mansfield Park. Davies looked forward to the opportunity to see his work on the big screen, but after the failure of Mansfield Park in 1999, Miramax shelved all Austen projects. It was a disappointing time for Davies as his script was no longer his to command.

For years afterward, rumors flew rampant about the upcoming production of the film—- first that actress Rachel Leigh Cook had been signed to play Catherine, and later, that Martin Amis had been hired to redraft the script— still—no action was taken. It was not until 2005 when Pride and Prejudice finally made it to the big screen that a new Austen film phenomenon began to take place. Suddenly there were four versions of her novels being filmed for television and a new biopic headed for theaters.

Miramax claimed that though they were thrilled with the original script from Mr. Davies, they were unable to find a director for the picture. Whatever the case, the script was eventually reacquired by ITV in 2002 and relegated to a back burner until the spring of 2006. At that time ITV began plans for their Spring 2007 Jane Austen Season to feature all new adaptations of Mansfield Park, Persuasion, and finally, Northanger Abbey, perhaps the most anticipated film of all.

A cast of Austen newcomers was assembled and filming began with Ireland standing in for Bath and the surrounding countryside. Felicity Jones was signed to play Catherine Morland and JJ Field took the part of Henry Tilney. A few familiar faces appeared in the guise of Mrs. Allen (Sylvestra Le Touzel, Mansfield Park’s Fanny Price, 1983) and Isabella Thorpe (Carey Mulligan, Kitty Bennet in 2005’s Pride and Prejudice).

Running a scant 93 minutes, Northanger Abbey manages to hit the high points of Austen’s novel, retaining it’s sometimes comic feel and satisfying, romantic ending. Changes have been made and purists will cry out at some of the plot rearrangements. The Mysteries of Udolpho, so central to the original story, though mentioned here, has been replaced by The Monk, Matthew Gregory Lewis’ 1796 horrifying gothic novel with Faust like overtones. Catherine’s imaginings, well recalled from the 1986 version, are alive and well here, and give the film it’s TVPG rating.

William Beck makes a suitably obnoxious villain as John Thorpe and Mark Dymond’s brooding Capt Tilney a satisfying match for Isabella’s wayward heart. The rest of the Tilney family is also well cast, with Liam Cunningham as an aging General Tilney and Catherine Walker as Henry’s retiring elder sister, Eleanor. Her romance is hinted at when we receive a brief glimpse of a clandestine meeting with her beloved. The Morland children are shown en masse and we can well imagine Catherine’s simple, happy childhood. Hugh O’Connor gives a convincing portrayal as her elder brother, James Morland, a man who loved ‘not too wisely, but too well.’

The costumes are lovely and the scenes sumptuous with period details abounding. There are numerous country dances danced and a variety of Regency past times portrayed. All in all, Northanger Abbey, while not a definitive portrayal of Jane Austen’s first novel, remains a delightful way to spend an hour and a half. The timeless romance of the story is left intact and the acting well above the average in a television movie. To quote Mr. Davies, “Felicity Jones was just about perfect as Catherine…and JJ Field made a very persuasive Henry Tilney.” Few would disagree with that!

Northanger Abbey is available in Region 2 DVD format from Amazon.co.uk. It is set to air in the United States in November during Masterpiece Theater’s Fall/Winter schedule on PBS. Check your local listings for dates and times.


Laura Boyle runs Austentation: Regency Accessories, creating custom made hats, bonnets and reticules in the Regency style. Sources for this article include The Making of Pride and Prejudice, by by Susie Conklin and Sue Birtwistle, as well as personal correspondence with Mr. Davies.