Mansfield Park (2007)

During the void between Christmas and New Year, I had a big family dinner with my in-laws and my husband’s aunt mentioned not liking Jane Austen. She’d only read one book, but she couldn’t remember which one.

“I think it must have been her first novel,” she said, “because nobody in it was likeable and it was very concerned with what it thought everyone should be doing all the time.”

“Oh, that must have been Mansfield Park,” I told her.

I thought at the time that I was offering some sort of explanation. Austenheads treat Mansfield Park as if it’s that one weird uncle that everyone in the family rolls their eyes at but makes allowances for, just casually moving all the breakables into cupboards before he comes round, gets drunk and decides to do a demonstration of BMX tricks using the ironing board as a bike. Yes, he’s a bore and no, most of us don’t really like him but he’s family!

That might be a bit unfair, but I do think that, as a community, Austen fans have never really known what to do with Mansfield Park. In that way, ITV’s 2007 adaptation is spot on.

mansfield park 2007 fanny and edmund

If you’re a purist about your Austentations, this one is not for you. It’s not that the film isn’t fun or enjoyable. It’s that I can’t fathom what the creators were aiming for, and I’m not convinced they knew either. Most of the decisions seem to have been made entirely cynically – they attempt to condense the entire 146,000-word plot into 88 minutes, the costumes are generically olden-days but more Victorian than Regency, and they spend all of 3 lines attempting to deal with the fact that the Bertram’s rely on slave labour – but then sometimes they do things like spend what feels like 5 minutes but is probably one just on William dancing. The end result is bland and bizarre at the same time.

I assume there were some significant budgetary constraints with this film as they cut one of my favourite the best parts of the book. Instead of being sent home after refusing Henry Crawford’s proposal, Fanny’s simply left at Mansfield to feel lonely while everyone else goes for a visit. The best side of Henry we see is him turning up to go for a walk in the garden, where he’s presented as a better option than sitting alone on a bench. It kind of still works a bit, but it’s clear that the decision was made so that they could film the entire production on (I reckon) about a quarter of one country estate.

Low budgets are an unfortunate but understandable reality of fillm production but they often come with a load of passion from the creators. It feels like the only thing anyone was passionate about in this production was risk-minimisation. A lot of the minor characters seem to be there mostly because someone told the writer and director that they had to be, without there being any kind of vision for them. Lady Bertram’s character is pretty one-note until the very end, when it switches so hard it would be super popular in the kink scene. Julia gets so little to do that I’ve already forgotten what she looks like. But Michelle Ryan’s Maria is probably the worst done by. I’ve seen Michelle Ryan in other things so I know she can say things and move her face but she spends most of this film doing neither.

For all its faults, and partly because of them, this adaptation is still a fun watch and, given its short running time, it feels like quite an efficient way to squeeze in some Austen. It feels a bit like the microwave veggie chilli I sometimes get for lunch – not the real thing, obviously, but with its own charm and a nice reminder of tastier meals when I only have 20 minutes. It’s sometimes silly, with dolly zooms and Mary full-on flashing her ankle while taking tea, and very pretty to look at, making it perfect for when you’re tucked up with a cold or feeling a bit sorry for yourself. Watch this one with fruity teas and Mr Kipling cakes if you’ve just realised your sexy date-mate is a shallow prick.

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If this film were a person, it would be your fun, quick-witted friend at high school, who offers to help you study for a literature exam and doesn’t let the fact that they’ve only read 80% of the Cliff’s notes hold them back. They’ll have plenty of convincing thoughts on a story that’s pretty engaging and is, to be fair, quite similar to the one you’re actually being tested on. And you might just get away with it, as long as none of the questions ask you or about any of the minor characters, or the several important chapters in the middle that your friend forgot to mention.

Likeability of leading lady 4/5
Billie Piper is very charismatic and absolutely nothing like Fanny Price.

Sexiness of leading man 3/5
Blake Ritson doesn’t do it for me personally, but he does brood nicely.

Sharpness of side characters 2/5
The Crawfords are both excellent and Hayley Atwell is always a treat. James D’Arcy’s sometimes plays Tom as if he’s on cocaine, which is a nice (if historically inaccurate) choice. Unfortunately, everyone else feels like they’re playing the minimum viable product version of their character.

Austenly vibes 2/5
The final scene is Fanny and Edmund inventing the Waltz.

Enjoyability 3/5
The costumes are all wrong but fun to look at, which sums up a lot about this film, and the four leads are engaging enough to pull off what might otherwise have been a shitshow.

Total 14/25

Sexiness of leading lady 4/5
Billie Piper in corsetry is a strong reason to abandon the empire line.

Likeability of leading man 3/5
We’ve all known someone (or been someone) who makes a big deal of valuing substance and keeps falling for sexy, charming rogues anyway. At least Edmund realises his mistake. And Blake Ritson manages to avoid being stuffy, which is an achievement. 

Faithfulness to the book 2/5
It’s recognisable, just.

Modern sensibilities 3/5
This is the Austen marriage I’m the least on board with. While I can accept marrying your cousin was something normal and fine in Austen’s time, Fanny and Edmund have grown up together more like siblings. Once you get past that, their actual relationship seems like it’d be pretty healthy and equal, especially as it’s portrayed in this version. But still…eww.

The Bertrams are rich because of slave labour and this film makes the briefest effort to acknowledge that but stops short of actually engaging with it beyond a short, dropped-in exchange that has no bearing on the rest of the plot or characterisation. It feels like they wanted credit for having condemned an atrocity without actually doing any work.

Mansfield Park has some of the most of-its-time content in all of Austen (I hope we’re all suitably shocked by the thought of ladies play-acting!) but it’s also got some of the most relevant stuff, too. 90% of women* have experienced pressure to date some guy just because her friends like him and don’t want to see him rejected. He’d be so happy, people think, if only she’d just stop being selfish and give up her agency! Henry Crawford is the original that guy. It’s done so well, even I kind of want Fanny to give him a chance when he turns up in Portsmouth, despite knowing what a dickweed he turns out to be. With that entire part of the plot missing, this arc isn’t nearly as effective but it’s still some hashtag-relatable-content.

 

*I utterly stand by this made up statistic.

 

 

Not-stentation: Good Society

You may have noticed the atrocious stacked portmanteau in the title (portmantrocious). I’m going off-book today to review something that is an Austen adaptation in spirit only. If you’re a purist with absolutely no interest in tabletop role-playing games, I suggest you give this one a miss and come back next time for some sweet, sweet Mansfield Park goodness.

Project Image

I was super excited when I first saw the Kickstarter for Storybrewers’ Good Society, a tabletop role-playing game that allows you and your friends to create your own collaborative Jane Austen novel. I’d previously tried to scratch that particular itch by creating an Austen playset for Fiasco, which was fun but had a tendency to descend into Regency-farce. Obviously, Regency-farce is wonderful in its own right but I wanted something with a little more heft.

Not only does Good Society fill exactly that hole, it also comes with a ‘farce’ playset, making my Fiasco playset completely obsolete.

Full disclosure before we get too far into it: I fully admit that anything combining Jane Austen with being a big ol’ nerd role-playing is basically a cheat code to my heart. Having said that, I am currently writing this review with three whole tabs open to try to somehow up my Kickstarter pledge months after the campaign has ended.

I played this game as a convention one-shot using the quickstart guide that was sent to Kickstarter backers. The quickstart is very much an evolving document and any of the rules may be changed by the time the final game is released later this year. While I hope to see a few of the rules streamlined in the finished version, it’s already a cracking good time.

My players all seemed to really enjoy this as a one-shot, and I plan to run it as a con game again in the future, but it’s clear that the game has been designed with multiple sessions in mind. Since so much of the gameplay comes from the interactions between characters, I didn’t want to turn up with a load of completely pre-generated options  as that rarely allows everyone to play on tropes that they find the most interesting. As the game gives a good selection of ‘semi-pre-generated’ PCs to choose from, I thought letting players make the final choices would be a quick and easy start to the game but it turned out to be a lot clunkier than expected. Some of the players found the process of creating PCs, forming inter-PC relationships and then creating and forming relationships with connections (NPCs) a bit unclear. Although it looks simple on paper, it wasn’t actually very streamlined in real life. While the process would be fine for a campaign, I’m planning on creating completely pre-generated characters and relationships for future one-shots (and the final game does come with ready-made cards to make this easier).

The Cards

Even with a bit of confusion at the start, the introduction and character generation took about 20 minutes. And, once you’ve dealt with the introductory admin, you get to start telling your story.

There are three ‘phases’ of gameplay: the chapter phase, where players act in character to tell the story, the epistolary phase, which gives players the chance to put their in-character thoughts down in writing, and the rumour phase, which is pretty much what is sounds like (players spread rumours about their own and other players’ characters). I thought the epistolary and rumour phases seemed a bit tacked on, to be honest – something we’d have to work to make relevant to the plot. They were fantastic. They made the players more invested, moved the story along fantastically, and one of the rumours put forward actually made me give a comically dramatic gasp of legitimate shock!

Play itself is very egalitarian, collaborative and free-form, with the rulebook being aimed at a ‘facilitator’ rather than a GM. The facilitator’s job is to encourage engagement from players by asking questions, giving suggestions and balancing the personalities at the table.  If you’re not keen on GM-less games, Good Society probably won’t change your mind. I personally love this style of running games, but I appreciate it’s not for everyone. And, crucially, this would have been much, much more stressful to run if I had been playing a PC, which the game suggests as an option. I had a brilliant time, but I very much want to only run this game, not play in it (unless someone else is facilitating, in which case I will be there with bonnets on).

Obviously, with any RPG, the feel of a session is partially dependent on the players at the table, but Good Society does better than almost any other game I’ve seen at nudging a group of individuals into one cohesive crack storytelling team. The designers have clearly put a lot of thought into encouraging an inclusive, collaborative atmosphere, explicitly encouraging conversation at the start of the game and even offering multiple choice questions to make sure the resulting story works for whoever happens to be playing. While this might be a change for some groups – and could seem like an unnecessary step if you’re not used to having these discussions – it really didn’t take a long time at all and the value of having that clarity was obvious when the story and character interactions were able to roll along smoothly (like a stone down a hill, pushed by the power of good communication).

I’d love to see more games tackle inclusivity and setting the right atmosphere at the start (and it’s something my own game design team is working on hard), and Good Society manages to pull it off without ever losing the self-aware, emotionally-literate levity that makes it such an fantastic Austen adaptation. Everything about this game’s presentation – from the artwork to the update emails sent to Kickstarter backers – makes it clear that play-pretend Regency is going to be a lot of fun. And it is! As a game designer, I really want to know how this free-form system results in such easy, funny and – most importantly – Austenly play. I’m sure part of this is down to my luck in running for five excellent players, but I get the feeling that Storybrewers have managed to create something that is more than the sum of its parts.

I recommend playing Good Society, with either tea or wine, especially if you enjoy character focused or improv-heavy role-playing games, like Powered by the Apocalypse, Fate or Fiasco (Good Society’s a much better constructed game than Fiasco in my opinion, but it has a lot of very similar elements). It would also make a brilliant introduction to RPGs and, if you’re reading this blog,  I’d encourage you to at least give it a go. As Austenly a pastime as decoupaging one’s pianoforte, but probably a lot more fun.

You can buy your own copy of Good Society on the Storybrewer’s website. The full game will be out in October 2018, but you’ll get the quickstart guide I used immediately. If you’re brand new to RPGs, Storybrewer’s also have a great selection of free games to try out before you drop any cash. As is probably clear from the rest of my posts, I get zero monetary gain from my reviews and I always give my honest opinion – the only criteria for my reviews is an Austen theme. 

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (2012)

I was so excited to watch the Lizzie Bennet Diaries – Pride and Prejudice told as an ongoing YouTube vlog – when I first heard of it, but I just couldn’t get invested. I kept trying to come back to it but in the end I just stopped watching.

In the interests of this project, though, I came back to it knowing I had to make it to video 100. And, somewhere along the way, I did find myself choosing to press play and actually enjoying it.

My name is Sasha Sienna and…I guess I liked the Lizzie Bennet Diaries?

Lizzie Bennet Diaries

I’m being unfair. I did like it. But I also think it was over-hyped and it took a long time to grow on me.

For starters, it’s too long. The total running time of all 100 episodes is 7 hours and 22 minutes. That’s the longest running time of any Jane Austen adaptation that I’m aware of (and I have a spreadsheet) – and that’s if you don’t watch the 60 or so supplemental videos that tell parts of the story from Lydia, Charlotte or Gigi (Georgiana)’s perspective. A lot of that runtime could have been cut from the first quarter of the story. It’s an incredibly slow start. It takes two of the early videos to give us information that takes three sentences in the book. Combined with the fact that you don’t actually see any of the action, just hear about it second hand, the first hour and a half of watching feels achingly uneventful. Once Jane and Lizzie get to Netherfield, things do start picking up and enough of the story starts actually happening on-screen from about halfway through, but it feels a bit like getting over a hurdle to make it to that point.

In fact, it takes this show a while to work itself out in every respect. Early episodes suffer from a contrived and stilted script, and performances that just aren’t naturalistic enough to pull off the premise. The vlog is presented as a project for Lizzie’s grad studies in mass communications and it seems like making the adaptation itself was an educational project for its creators. It feels amateurish compared to other adaptations made for film or TV. But, the thing is, the Lizzie Bennet Diaries wasn’t made for film or TV. It was made for YouTube, and when the platform was only seven years old. That’s not enough time for a medium to mature! There’s just so much gold made for television at the moment – we’re really nailing that these days (I say ‘we’ the species, I take no credit for how good TV is). But it’s taken us a long time to get to that point. Video sharing platforms are much newer and of course the content creators working on it will be less skilled than those working in TV, who have decades of work to build on. And in a way, that’s also what made the show so popular to begin with – it’s super innovative. Nothing like the Lizzie Bennet Diaries had ever been done before and, OK, it took them a little while to figure out how to do it right, but they did figure it out by the end.

The show’s actually at its strongest when it veers from the book. It’s fantastic at putting the details of the original into a new context. Mr Collins becomes an inexperienced CEO, with Catherine de Bourgh as his micromanaging venture capitalist, and his marriage proposals become job offers. George Wickham isn’t a soldier, but a swimming instructor and Denny’s is now a bar (this is actually pretty in line with how a lot of soldiers behaved and were viewed while they were traipsing from English village to English village). Kitty is sort of present, but she’s Lydia’s cat. I was kind of hoping they’d make Charlotte definitely a lesbian but there are no clues either way. Fitz (Colonel Fitzwilliam) is gay though, which is the perfect reason for him to not be an excellent love interest for Lizzie, and Craig Frank’s easy and likeable portrayal is the best performance in the series. The show makes a few calls that personally didn’t work for me (I can’t imagine super-sweet Jane working in fashion and spent the first third of the show under the entirely unjustified assumption she was a vet), but they don’t matter – the fun of the series is that it plays around so much with the source material.

I hate to type this but I do have to say it: there were two things I just wasn’t sold on by video 100 and, unfortunately, those two things are Lizzie and Darcy. First of all, they’ve presented Darcy as intensely socially awkward. As I mentioned in my review of Bridge and Prejudice, my reading of the book is that he can be charming, he’s just such a snob that he chooses not to be (at first). Book-Darcy is an excellent dancer, once he gets on the floor. Vlog-Darcy is heavily implied to have less than no rhythm. There’s definitely space in the text to read Darcy as a bit of a clumsy stiff with a heart of gold, but here’s the thing: that’s just not sexy. Bad dancing isn’t sexy. Reservation can be sexy, even arrogance sometimes, but not knowing how to interact with other people is just not very attractive (to me, but also to most other people I’ve met).

Edit: since writing this review, I’ve come to realise I was quite hard line in my view of Darcy while I was still figuring out my view of this interpretation. I’m going to keep this review as is because it’s important to acknowledge when you’ve revised or changed your opinions without writing over your old ones.

The thing that makes this Lizzie less likeable than the original is pretty unavoidable. It’s the vlogging. It’s not the fact that she has a vlog, but the fact that she spends the vast majority of the vlog talking about other people’s personal lives on the internet. To its credit, the series does acknowledge that that’s a pretty crappy thing for Lizzie to do and in later episodes she really does engage with it, but having a character choose to do this at all is going to make me like and respect them less. Seriously, vlog-Lizzie, do you have so little going on in your own life that the best thing you can talk about to the internet is your sister’s (frankly unremarkable at this point) proto-romance? It’s ironic that she spends so much time on it, while criticising her mother for her over-zealous interest in Jane and Bing. I’d have loved to seen the writing play with this contrast a bit, but I got the feeling they just weren’t aware of it.

While there’s a lot to criticise here, I have to say I feel a bit bad about pointing out the show’s flaws. Even though I really didn’t enjoy the first quarter or so of the episodes, I was pretty charmed by the series overall. I’m left with fond memories of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, but no desire for a rewatch.

Sexiness of leading man 4/5
Daniel Vincent Gordh is a good-looking man who appears too uncomfortable to be really attractive in this adaptation. But Christopher Sean’s Bing Lee is hot enough that I’m adding an extra point in here, even though he’s not technically the romantic lead.

Likeability of leading lady 3/5
Alright, she’s not as likeable as the Lizzie Bennet Jane Austen wrote but that’s a ridiculously high bar.

Austenly vibes 2/5
Obviously, not very Austenly at all – that’s kind of the point. But they capture the spirit of all the events of the book pretty well and the two leads do have good chemistry.

Side characters 4/5
They’re very good., including Mr & Mrs Bennet, who we don’t technically ever see on screen.

Enjoyability 3.5/5
I was really unsure how to rate this category because the series improves so much over time. My recommendation: read the Wikipedia page, then start at episode 27. It’ll keep getting better from there.

Total 16.5/25

Likeability of leading man 4/5
Most of the times we see Darcy on-screen, he’s ‘post-reform’ and trying really hard, which is very endearing.

Sexiness of leading lady 3.5/5
Ashley Clements is very attractive, though not particularly my type.

Faithfulness to the text 3/5
OK, obviously it’s not that faithful to the text because it’s set in the modern US and it’s, you know, a Youtube vlog. BUT, they really do manage to keep the foundations there! They change pretty much all the details but they do a great job of changing them to things that are actually really good modern-day analogues of the original details. They even manage to keep the famous opening line.

Modern Sensibilities 5/5
Obviously this is way more diverse and feminist and queer-friendly than the original text. I did waver on the fifth star because of a very uncomfortable scene with a dodgy afro wig but, since 99.9% of the show is as close as we’re going to get with this category, I’ve rounded up.

Edited again: I also think I went too easy on the wig. That shit’s inextricably linked to pervasive racism and anti-blackness and it’s not cool.

Northanger Abbey (1987)

I love Northanger Abbey. It’s probably not quite my favourite Austen novel but I tell people it is because I think it’s so underrated. But even I have to admit that the 1987 adaptation is one of the worst things I’ve ever seen. It’s right down there with the time my ex-boyfriend took me to watch a variety show that was allegedly by the Scouts but featured a baffling number of full-grown adults.

Let’s start with the good news. The prog-rocky soundtrack is clearly trying hard and having all kinds of fun. It feels a little dated, even for 1987, but it’s still the shining star of this film. Good job everyone who worked on the music. The gothic vignettes punctuating the narrative as peeks into Catherine’s imagination are a strong choice, too. While I’d rather see Catherine fantasising about someone more attractive, casting the actor who plays General Tilney as the villain in her daydreams does make a certain amount of narrative sense. I have a lot of side-eye reserved for creative choices that result in y0ung women having sexual fantasies involving (a) non-consent and (b) older, less attractive men but I think it at least partly makes sense here as part of a homage to a subgenre that was popular for featuring exactly these tropes. Together, the pseudo-dream sequences and the reverb-heavy soundtrack made me feel like I was watching Meatloaf do a Hammer Horror music video, which I’m pretty sure is a compliment.

Beyond that, the best thing I can say about this adaptation is that it’s short. And yet, at only 88 minutes long, it still somehow manages to feel drawn out for most of part 1.

The terrible supporting cast might be less of a disaster if we had a good Catherine Morland in Katherine Schlesinger. Schlesinger’s acting is extremely late-80’s BBC style, which is understandable, given that’s exactly what she’s acting in. It’s not a style that’s ever worked for me, though. I find a lot of performances for this time in British TV to be over-the-top while also managing to be completely wooden. Of course, it’s no bad thing to give a melodramatic performance of Catherine Morland – she is a sensationalist teen, after all – but she’s only likeable because she’s so artless and earnest. It takes a particularly naturalistic, honest portrayal to make that work and Schlesinger’s performance is neither. When I first read Northanger Abbey at 15, I basically was Catherine Morland so this ham-fisted characterisation feels like a personal insult.

While Catherine was the Austen heroine I most identified with, Henry was the romantic lead I fell in love with. My feelings about Henry Tilney now are…complicated. At nearly 30, I’ve encountered enough real sexism that ironically calling women stupid no longer seems like a funny joke for a man to make. And Henry makes it ALL. THE. TIME. Shut up, Henry! Get a new thing! He is definitely having the most fun of all of Austen’s leading men, though, and that’s not nothing. He’s smart without being stuffy, and has integrity without being a prude. The right actor can make Henry super charming. Peter Firth is…not that actor. I assume his performance is intended to be dry but it overshoots so hard it ends up 50 miles past -serious’ and lands in ‘creepily intense’. I don’t get the sense that his Henry Tilney is even joking when he spends the entire film insulting women and that’s still far from the most off-putting thing about him. If you’re a romcom nerd on Twitter, you’ve probably seen Alanna Bennett (@AlannaBennett)’s great theory on the importance of “the look” in selling a romance. All the best male romance leads can really look at a woman like she’s their sun. For some reason, you don’t see many women giving “the look” to men but pretty much anyone can give it in a queer romance.

Here’s alternative Mr Tilney, JJ Fields demonstrating “the look” in Austenland.

And here’s Peter Firth looking at Katherine Schlesinger like he wants to peel, fry and eat the skin off her face.

Image result for northanger abbey peter firth

I think this film tries to show us a dom Henry to Catherine’s sub, as a play on the power and kink elements of Catherine’s sexual fantasies but he’s just an utter creep. There’s no chemistry between the two leads, no reciprocal longing looks, no struggling against the restraints of social propriety; there’s just Peter Firth leching over a teenager who doesn’t know any better than to think that’s love.

It feels like I’ve given this adaptation enough of a bashing but I just can’t close off the review without mentioning the Thorpes. Cassie Stuart’s Isabella and Jonathan Coy’s John Thorpe are two of the worst things I’ve ever seen. Not performances, two of the worst things.  Each of them have exactly one level that they stick to for every moment they’re on screen. At least half the blame has to lie with director Giles Foster for consistently choosing to play up the clumsy pantomime angle. The staging of some scenes had me wanting to yell “oh no, it isn’t!” at the TV screen. I’ve been involved in my share of pantos and, while it’s obviously it’s own kind of art form, etc, etc., most of the conventions it uses these days are designed to entertain the maximum number of people with the minimum amount of budget and skill. If you don’t have the skill to make a film without relying on pantomime techniques, then you sure as hell don’t have the skill to translate pantomime to film.

God, I hate this movie.

This was my third time watching this travesty but it was my husband’s first and I think he summed it up perfectly: they’ve tried to make Jane Austen sexy and, in doing so, they’ve ruined everything about it that is sexy.

Sexiness of leading man 0/5
I’ve already said everything I need to about Peter Firth. It’s not his fault he’s not as good-looking as his brother. It is his fault his Henry Tilney seems more cannibalistic than charismatic.

Likeability of leading lady 1/5
The part of the film where Katherine Schlesinger is the least wooden is when she’s reading in a tree.

Side Characters 2/5
Googie Withers’ Mrs Allen was pretty OK!

Austenly vibe 2/5
None of the romance or subtlety of character was there, but this adaptation affectionately pokes fun at gothic romances just as much as the original work and there’s definitely an annoying, naive teenager side of Catherine that comes out in this film.

Enjoyability 2/5
In some ways, this falls into so bad it’s good. Watch it with some wine and company and enjoy watching Mrs Allen complain about the crowds and lack of tea things in the middle of a half-empty dancefloor.

Total 7/25

Likeability of leading man 0/5
He’s dreadful.

Sexiness of leading lady 0/5
Katherine’s Catherine is an irritating, clueless teen. I feel a bit weird about even including this category.

Modern sensibilities 0/5
If this adaptation was released this year, there’d be a case for it being an uncomfortable ‘post-#MeToo’ reading of the text.

Faithfulness to the book 3/5
It might be executed abysmally but the script is mostly reasonably faithful, if very rushed. Even the most die-hard purist can’t begrudge at least a teeny tiny foreshadowing of Eleanor’s marriage. But what in a thousand worlds was going on with the Marchioness? There’s a bizarre scene where Catherine watches the boy that’s with the Marchioness doing cartwheels in the garden (I guess we’re to assume he is her child slave and he’s unsurprisingly the only person of colour in the film) and it’s one of the most pointless and othering things I’ve ever seen. What? What were they going for with that?

Watch this film if you want to see a bunch of people spectacularly fail to carry out a load of baffling creative decisions.

 

 

 

 

Bride and Prejudice (2004)

 

Bride and Prejudice

This may be one of the most balls-to-the-wall fun Austen adaptations ever made. You can practically see the cast and crew relishing the over-the-top fluff-fest they’re serving up.

This film does a great job of transplanting the story from Regency-era England to modern-day India, changing the names of the characters but keeping their essence much the same. There’s no Kitty; the four Bakshi sisters are Lalita (Lizzie), Jaya (Jane), Maya (Mary) and  Lakhi (Lydia). Mr Bingley becomes Balraj and his sister Kiran. Mr Darcy is still Mr Darcy because he’s American in this movie, looking like a 90s version of Justin Trudeau. But while Justin Trudeau looks like a Disney prince, William Darcy is a bit more Dreamworks and while J.Tru is in charge of a country filled with chips, cheese and gravy, Mr. Darcy is in charge of a bunch of overpriced hotels.

Darcy and Balraj (played by Martin Henderson and Naveen Andrews respectively) are two of the weakest parts of this movie. Naveen Andrews is a good actor but he’s always been a bit stiff and reserved for a Bingley-type. That’s why he was so good in Sense8. Having said that, the early scene where he jumps straight into a group song and dance number almost immediately on arrival at a party is a very Bingley move.

In contrast, Darcy’s actually too chatty. He makes a beeline for Lalita right from the start and never once seems averse to meeting people. Sure, he’s an arrogant arse who’s condescending about India, but he’s not actually uptight or closed off, in the way that Darcy should be (or at least appear at the start). And while that difference might be a matter of different readings, or wanting to update the character, I think it’s an important one. Part of Darcy’s appeal in the original is that he is actually socially competent for the time – he just doesn’t choose to show it in Hertfordshire because he doesn’t think the locals are worth his efforts. There’s a tendency in some modern adaptations to make him, not proud, but awkward. You can see it in every script that makes a reference to Darcy as a bad dancer, despite the fact that he’s excellent at dancing in the book. It’s fine and absolutely a valid way to re-interpret him, but it somewhat erases his eventual choice to change his behaviour and it is, crucially, much less sexy.

While I didn’t love that Darcy seemed to be super into Lalita from the start, it’s very understandable. Aishwarya Rai Bachchan absolutely shines every time she’s on screen. She’s sharp, witty and her Lalita captures everything about Lizzie that makes her so popular with modern readers. She’s outspoken, witty, incisive and loyal. You instantly want to be friends with her/date her/be here [tick all that apply].

Apart from Lalita, the side characters in this adaptation are amazing. Mrs Bakshi is a perfectly updated version of Mrs Bennet and watching Maya’s cobra dance is more excruciating than reading about mediocre piano-playing can ever be. Indira Varma as Karin (Caroline) and Nitin Ganatra as Mr Kohli (Mr Collins) are both probably best versions of their characters I’ve ever seen. Mr Kohli is a perfect caricature of the unappealing misogynist who thinks he’s an academic ladies man, and the song that follows his introductory scene is the most catchy in the film. Karin is an incredibly believable, unlikeable snob while somehow managing to come across as three-dimensional.

Setting the film in India means Mrs Bakshi’s involvement in her daughter’s marriages is comically over-the-top rather than downright bizarre, unlike most modern-day adaptations. The film deals with this nicely, with Lalita referring to the auntie network as like a dating service. But the only disappointing aspect of this film is a big one: the central relationship. One of the biggest strengths of an Austen story is the fact that there are so many obstacles to the main couple getting together, or admitting their feelings to each other. Darcy and Lalita are going on dates and flying over the grand canyon way too early. It makes the rest of the film feel like the result of their poor communication rather than any real barriers.

Watching this film is just a great time. From the perfectly timed fistfight in the cinema to Karin’s voice shouting “I’m tripping my nuts off!” during an Ashanti concert (Ashanti’s in this!), it’s just a load of fun. I watched this alone when sick but I think it would go well with a few friends, some beer and some popcorn, too.

Sexiness of leading man 2/5
Look, Martin Henderson’s given good performances before. Remember his part in the greatest action thriller ever made: the video for Britney Spears’ Toxic? But spend four minutes watching my new favourite film and tell me this man is a worthy successor to Colin Firth.

Likeability of leading lady 5/5
Obviously, I thought Lalita was very likeable. See above.

Sharpness of side characters 5/5
It’s a very excellent job from the script, directors and cast.

Austenly vibes 2/5
The setting and comic relief are great but the stakes just aren’t high enough in Lalita and Darcy’s relationship and it falls flat.

Enjoyment 4/5
This is a super enjoyable film, apart from the fact that I wasn’t super invested in the actual plot.

Total 18/25

Likeability of leading man 3/5
He’s OK.

Sexiness of leading lady 5/5
We’re talking about a former Miss World, dressed down to look like someone you might feasibly meet in real life and playing someone you’d very much want to meet in real life. Unquestionably super sexy.

Modern sensibilities 5/5
Lizzie’s the most modern of Austen’s heroines and Lalita doesn’t disappoint. She actually gets to go and rescue Lakhi in this one! Admittedly, it looks like they’re mostly rescuing her from a nice day of tourism, but still.

Faithfulness to the book 2/5
They do use some of the original lines and plenty of the original scenes are somewhat recreated, but it is still set in modern day India rather than eighteenth century England, and the Lalita/Darcy plot gets pretty mixed up.

 

Sense and Sensibility (1995)

Hello there! For the first review I share with you, I wanted to pick something classic. Something solid. Something that was available on Netflix. I couldn’t think of a better place to start than with the 1995 adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, starring Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet. Spoiler alert: it’s a great film. Classic. Solid. Netflix.

Sense and Sensibility

Let’s start with the most important point: there are a lot of good dogs in this film. Lady Middleton’s nowhere to be found but thank goodness they included all those dogs. With these excellent fluff-monsters, the lady of the house is never missed.

Canines aside, watching this film feels almost exactly like reading a Jane Austen novel, with the added bonus of being able to see the costumes. The standouts here are the script – adapted by Emma Thompson herself – and the side characters. Elizabeth Spriggs and Robert Hardy are great as Mrs Jennings and Sir John Middleton – two very effective portrayals of good people who are also super annoying – and Hugo from The Vicar of Dibley brings his classic bimbling energy to John Dashwood. Margaret gets a character all of her very own in this adaptation. It’s a departure from her bland pseudo-presence in the book, but she’s very charming here, especially if you’re as keen on pirates as she is (which I am). All the performances are good, but it’s Imelda Staunton and Hugh Laurie that really shine as the Palmers. I watched this film with my English Lit-graduate husband and a friend who’d never seen nor read Sense and Sensibility, and all three of us laughed out loud every single time they had an interaction. They are SO. GOOD. The only character I’m not on board with in this film is Lucy Steele. This was the fourth time I’ve seen this adaptation and it wasn’t until now that I realised why I don’t like her portrayal: I saw the actress in a very mediocre children’s show called Big Kids when I was about 10. It’s a shame, but it’s definitely ruined her forever in my eyes.

That’s not a danger with either Emma Thompson’s Elinor or Kate Winslet’s Marianne. When I originally read the book as an emotional lightning-rod of a teen, I felt pretty called out by the whole character of Marianne, and I thought Elinor was a judgemental bore. I’ve learned to like and identify with Elinor more as I’ve grown into a partially-functioning adult, but I still think Austen idolises a level of stoicism we’d now call ‘unhealthy repression’. So it’s a hard job for a modern adaptation to get across the spirit of the original without either making Elinor seem like she’s entirely propped up by the stick in her bum, or making Marianne into the kind of emotional wreck who cries when her bobble doesn’t fit her ponytail right. This film nails it. Elinor is sensible while being human, Marianne is dramatic while being understandable. Part of how they manage this is the age gap between the two seems much wider than two years (Emma Thompson is actually 17 years older than Kate Winslet and was closer to Mrs Dashwood’s age than to Elinor’s when the film was made). Both actresses give brilliant, likeable performances and they bounce off each other beautifully.

Of course, any Jane Austen adaptation in possession of a good script must be in want of an attractive leading man, and this one has three chances to get it right. According to IMDb, the Jane Austen Society actually phoned the producers during filming to complain that Hugh Grant was too good-looking to play Edward Ferrars. Whatever the Jane Austen Society thinks, though, the primary audience for these adaptations is almost always women who are attracted to men, so a sexier love interest always scores more points in these reviews. That said, I’ve never really seen the appeal of Hugh Grant. Or Alan Rickman. I’m aware those are unpopular opinions, but they’re mine. Hugh Grant’s perfomance does capture what I think Edward’s appeal is – he’s just so lovely through his inelegancebut, as much as I love Alan Rickman as an actor, his Colonel Brandon is much too mumbly. Combined with the age gap between him and Marianne, and her initial complete disinterest in him, he just comes across as creepy. In fairness to the film, I’ve always thought Colonel Brandon’s attraction to Marianne is a bit iffy. It makes much more sense for him to be in love with Elinor – they actually get on, and have things to talk about like equals, whereas he seems to like Marianne entirely because she reminds him of someone else.

Obviously, Willoughby is always going to be the sexiest of the main men, and it’s really no contest here. Although we do learn he has an unattractive silhouette, he has very soulful eyes. Greg Wise and Kate Winslet have great chemistry and he’s genuinely very likeable for the first part of the film.Having been a bit of a Marianne during my teenage years, Greg Wise’s Willoughby is exactly the kind of passionate, charismatic love interest I would have longed for. And it’s that charisma that makes the twist really work – so utterly disappointing while also being utterly believable. Damn it, John/Greg, we were all rooting for you! Well, perhaps not all. My good friend Ross, who’d never seen nor read Sense and Sensibility before, distrusted Willoughby from the start and offered himself up to Colonel Brandon straight up. Good instincts, Ross.

***

Sexiness of Leading Men 2/5
Sorry, Ross, Alan Rickman’s Brandon is unappealing and Hugh Grant gives too good a performance of awkward Edward Ferrars to be sexy. Willoughby’s charismatic but being dumped for money is a turn-off.

Likeability of Leading Ladies 4/5
A good script and great performances add a bit of depth to the source material

Sharpness of Side Characters 4/5
Some real standouts let down by a distractingly annoying Lucy Steele

Austenly Vibe 5/5
Where the script departs from the book, it’s to make the best use of the medium to get across the atmosphere of the original. Like a concentrated squash version of the original, if squash tasted like real juice.

Enjoyment 5/5
I’ve seen and enjoyed this film four times now, and I got mildly tipsy on wine and fancy chocolates with my friends so I had a lot of fun 5/5

Total score: 20/25

Bonus stats

Sexiness of leading ladies 3/5
Kate Winslet’s pulling most of the weight here but her illness make-up is really realistic. I’m actually not sure if it’s make-up or if they made her run on the spot for 20 minutes in a sauna. It’s super effective, but not sexy. Emma Thompson is beautiful and elegant, but in a Hollywood’s mum way.

Likeability of leading men 4/5
Where Hugh Grant isn’t sexy, he is charmingly awkward and super nice.

Faithfulness to the book 3/5
A major Willoughby scene is cut in favour of more Elinor/Edward interaction and some minor characters are missing. The script moves a lot of the source material about, but it uses a lot of the same lines and the substance of the story is the same.

Modern sensibilities 3/5
It doesn’t lean into the attitudes of the time and but it doesn’t much engage with or challenge them either. Kate Winslet’s Marianne is too naive to be the comfortable love interest for Alan Rickman’s Brandon.