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Sunday, 26 April 2009

I must be a girl because I enjoyed The Jane Austen Book Club but it wasn't made for guys. A seriously feminine film, it celebrates predictability, domesticity and faithfulness over risk, adventure and passion. Charlotte Bronte would have hated it.

The crucual scene occurs toward the end, when the French teacher who is contemplating an affair with an 18-year-old student pauses at a traffic light. 'WALK' says the sign, in green illuminated letters. Standing there in the pink strapless dress she had concealed under her beach wear, she sees the sign spell out a question: 'WHAT WOULD JANE DO'. It's goofy and, frankly, a bit of a let-down.

Teary-eyed, she returns hom to her husband, who is playing a video game on his desk computer, and begs him to read part of Austen's last novel, Persuasion, the book that chronicles the reignition of love between two characters grown a little old and tired. Just like her marriage. For some bizarre reason he starts to read it out to her. They end up in bed, her breasts mid-screen as he leans solicitously over her prone form, still reading from the worn paperback.

Meanwhile, the divorcee is snogging her ex and they are surprised when their lesbian daughter walks in on them as they clinch in the back garden of the house that she is living in. And on the other side of town the dog-breeding control freak is ensconced in her silver Volvo outside the house of the younger man - the one she picked up in an elevator while on a trip. It's not long before they are tearing each others' clothes off in wild abandon.

And for the formal get-together the six-times divorced older woman, the doyen of the book club, turns up at the restaurant with a new husband, this one from the Spanish-speaking sector of the Americas.

It's champagne all round and then a trip to the ladies room to freshen up before dessert.

But surprisingly, the book demonstrates that at least the script writers have read Austen. It's loaded with serious references to Austen's life and works that only a dedicated reader would readily identify. As a bonus, the young computer guy the dog breeder falls for is a science fiction fan: luckily as sci-fi was an adolescent passion of mine.

So love is messy and sometimes cruel but the one who sticks to her conviction will win out in the end. This seems to be the 'lesson' Austen has bequeathed to the writers of this slick production. Nevermind that Austen was single all her life and that her life didn't end up able to be wrapped in pretty bows (she died of a wasting disease at the age of 42).

For us girls (I'm an honorary member of the sex now, it seems) Austen will always represent a way of reaching into other lives, not least our own.

The intricate braiding of Austen's six novels - the club focuses on one book a month for six months - with the sanitised but messy-on-the-surface lives of these half dozen or so characters results in an unthreatening experience. We are not challenged but we are, at least, entertained. And the good guys always wear a jacket, even if it has a zipper.

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