10 February 2008

All Jane Austen, all the time

It's no secret that I have had a life-long passion for Jane Austen's novels. It's a love that led me to serious study of her work; I wrote my honours thesis on Persuasion. I re-read at least one of her novels every year. And I happily consume all of the screen adaptations of her novels, be they be good, bad or utterly laughable.

Each of the novels except for Northanger Abbey was adapted for the screen during the 1990s, for the most part with great success. They've had another go-around a decade later, only this time without Emma.

This time, the results haven't been so satisfying. Last year, Britain's ITV network produced a dreadful Mansfield Park and a rather sweet Northanger Abbey, and managed to mangle Persuasion in an appalling way. Great leads (Sally Hawkins and Rupert Penry-Jones, pictured above) and a handsome production, spoilt completely by a ridiculous interpretation of one of the most moving and romantic endings in literature.

(I believe that the ABC will be screening these adaptations in Australia this year. I've already seen them thanks to my fellow Austen-obsessed pal Beth, who purchased the DVDs when she as in England last year.)

So I'm pleased to report that in the last week I've watched a very good new Jane Austen adaptation which has screened recently in the UK, Sense & Sensibility. A BBC production, I bought the DVD online, and saved it to watch with Beth and another JA-devotee last week. Adapted by Andrew Davies, this production has the good sense to stay true to the novel, although Davies does manage to throw in his signature wet shirt scene for one of the male leads, as you can see here.

This version manages to do something that previous adaptations of Sense & Sensibility haven't. This Elinor, played by Hattie Morahan, is suitably sensible and controlled, but she is also young (with apologies to the great Emma Thompson), with an air of sensitivity and vulnerabilty. And Edward is finally portrayed as an attractive young man rather than a stuffed shirt, with he and Elinor having real chemisty.

The rest of the cast is good too. Charity Wakefield as Marianne doesn't manage to outshine Kate Winslett's sublime portrayal of the character in Ang Lee's 1995 version, but that's not surprising. While her Marianne is appropriately selfish and strong willed, she's harder to warm to, and I wondered a bit why someone like Colonel Brandon would fall in love with her. I would have liked too for her to look more unwell during her decline, but no matter. Overall, this is still one of the better adaptations of an Austen novel.

Now would someone please make a good adaptation of Mansfield Park?

While Sense & Sensibility doesn't get much of a look-in in the other Austen-related film I've seen this past week, The Jane Austen Book Club, it's interesting that Austen's most complex novel Mansfield Park does. In essence, however, this isn't a film about Austen or even her novels. It's about the bookclub itself, an ensemble of characters whose lives reflect the concerns, but not the plots, of Jane Austen's novels. It does touch on what her novels mean to people though.

I'm glad I liked this film, because I found the novel it was based on intensely annoying. I went to see the film only on the basis of its good reviews. It was an enjoyable way to pass a couple of hours, and it's refreshing to see women in their 40s as romantic leads.

And I can't fault a film with the tagline, "all Jane Austen, all the time"!

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