Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 25 2016 02:00PM

The life of a Jane Austen video completist is not easy. Yes, it’s true that in the service of her mission – to see and, ideally, to own every Austen-related film adaptation – she scales the heights of the Emma Thompson Sense and Sensibility and the Firth/Ehle Pride and Prejudice.


But she must also plumb the depths. She must wade, at least once, through the tedious and confusing Jane Austen in Manhattan. She must tolerate the saccharine perkiness of Scents and Sensibility. And, I report with sorrow, she must grit her teeth through the deeply annoying Unleashing Mr. Darcy.


I’ll admit that my expectations were low. The TV movie Unleashing Mr. Darcy is based on a mediocre P&P update that mostly abandons Austen’s clever, economical plotting in favor of an incoherent series of relationship reversals (They’re fighting! Oh, now they’re having totally amazing sex! Wait, they’re fighting again!) that set the reader’s head a-spinning.


But as my teenage daughter and I tuned to the Hallmark channel and settled down with our popcorn on Saturday night, I was cautiously optimistic that a good screenwriter and a couple of decent actors could fix the problems. Plus, the story is set in the dog-show world, which guarantees cute-animal overload.


Alas. Let’s just say that, pace Jane Austen, sometimes first impressions are entirely accurate. My daughter’s off-the-cuff review pretty much sums it up: “Wow. I don’t think that had any redeeming features.”


Rich-guy dog-show judge Donovan Darcy is played by Ryan Paevey, a model and soap-opera actor with the bland handsomeness and charisma-free personality you’d expect from such a resume. Spunky dog-owner Elizabeth Scott is played by Cindy Busby, a TV actress with a startling talent for seeming shrill and irritating in every scene, whether she’s enacting tearful, joyful or outraged.


And the writing! Ouch. Apologizing for her (entirely unmotivated) rudeness to Darcy, Elizabeth explains, “I was upset about other reasons.” Who talks like that? The occasional Austen lines land with a thud, completely out of place in their surroundings. Even the actors seem confused. “My good opinion once lost is lost forever,” Darcy tells Elizabeth, pretty much out of the blue, early in their acquaintance. “What does that mean, exactly?” she asks. “Nothing,” he replies.


These two are so charmless that it’s difficult to understand what they see in each other, beyond her generic blondness and his sculpted abs, which we inspect during a gratuitous bathing-suit scene that is probably meant to evoke Firth’s wet shirt. (Note to writers: It’s bad strategy to remind viewers of much, much better Austen adaptations.) Presumably in order to keep its TV-G rating, the movie reworks the (terrible) plot of the original into an (equally terrible) version that omits the hot-and-heavy makeout sessions and full-on sex scene that, in the book, at least offer some clue to what’s driving this relationship.


And don’t expect to divert yourself from the trainwreck by ogling the beautiful grounds of Pemberley: the scene has been moved from England to (a poor facsimile of) New York City, and the production values are strictly bargain-basement. “Come and stay with me in my brownstone,” a friend tells Elizabeth, who soon shows up on the doorstep of. . . a house that, with its wide porch and brick facings, resembles no urban brownstone I’ve ever seen.


Yes, there are canine cameos, mostly by terriers and Cavalier King Charles spaniels. They’re adorable, of course. But even the cute pooches can’t save this dog.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 14 2016 02:00PM

People who were alive in November 1963 like to reminisce about the moment they learned that JFK had been shot. American Janeites who were alive in January 1996 can look back on a far more joyful, although slightly less momentous, milestone: their first viewing of the BBC’s landmark adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, which began airing on the A&E network exactly twenty years ago tonight.


That adaptation, which features the famous not-in-Austen shot of Colin Firth, aka Mr. Darcy, in a clingy, translucent wet shirt, is often credited (by me, among other people) with kicking off the pop-culture Austenmania that we still live with today, albeit in the attenuated form of Bustle listicles and zombie mashups.


So where was I when I first saw the famous P&P? Well, I didn’t subscribe to cable back then, so I had to content myself with a VHS recording mailed to me by my parents some time (a week? A month? Can’t remember now) after the original broadcast.


My husband and I invited a Janeite friend over for a two-night viewing party in our tiny apartment. The second night, she and I insisted on starting out by rewatching our favorite scene. No, not that one! In those pre-Internet days, I don’t know if we’d heard about the wet-shirt frenzy spawned by the show’s initial broadcast a few months earlier in England.


Anyway, that scene is in the second half.


We wanted to see Darcy and Elizabeth, played by the great Jennifer Ehle, crossing swords after his insulting proposal -- the six-minute exchange in which she tells him he’s “the last man in the world” she would ever agree to marry. It’s one of Jane Austen’s greatest scenes, and Andrew Davies’ screenplay realizes it beautifully, skillfully turning paraphrase into speech and interweaving the result with a condensed version of Austen’s dialogue. Firth paces, Ehle seethes, and the intensity of feeling between them gives even a P&P virgin a clue that Elizabeth is going to end up eating those words, with a cherry on top.


OK, I just went and watched that scene again. It’s still fabulous. Happy twentieth anniversary, everyone.


By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 6 2015 01:00PM

Given the attention lavished on filmed Jane Austen adaptations in the past twenty years, it was probably inevitable that, amid this decade’s celebration of the publication bicentennials of Austen’s novels, we’d begin to see celebrations of the much more recent anniversaries of Austen movies.


And so it is that Toronto Janeites will gather today to mark the twentieth anniversary of the big kahuna of Austen adaptations: the BBC’s famed Pride and Prejudice, starring Jennifer Ehle and. . . what’s-his-name. . . the guy in the wet shirt. (Forester? Firbanks? Something like that.)


The gala event will begin bright and early with a viewing of all five-plus hours of the esteemed mini-series, interspersed with “dancing, eating, sewing, drinking tea, socializing, playing historical games, and general Regency fun!” promises the event sponsor, JaneAustenDancing.


“Bring your quill pen, your embroidery, your deck of cards, or just yourself, and prepare to spend the day with fellow Austen nerds!” they add. (I might bristle at the term “Austen nerd,” except that I cannot deny its aptness.)


The celebration “will be an all-day Jane Austen-a-thon,” adds a newspaper report.


In my experience, among Janeites, opinions about Austen adaptations run the gamut, from “Nothing but the books, please” to “Anything with pretty costumes works for me.” But I think we can all agree that a day spent at a “Jane Austen-a-thon” pretty much can’t be improved upon. Enjoy yourself, Toronto -- the rest of us will think of you enviously as we sip lukewarm coffee in our cubicles.


By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 9 2013 08:04PM

Shannon Hale’s Austenland is not a great work of literature: it’s a mildly entertaining beach read with a cute romantic denouement. The movie version could have been a sweet, funny summertime romantic comedy, something for us girls to see while the menfolk were occupied with “Boys Blowing Things Up, Part VIII.”


Much though my little feminist heart longs to support "Austenland" as a rare, female-centric movie – producer Stephenie (Twilight) Meyer noted in a Hollywood Reporter interview that it's “based on a novel by a woman, scripted by women, produced by women, directed by a woman and starring a woman” -- honesty compels me to report that it's appalling.


It’s not bad like a guilty pleasure, or bad like an interesting experiment gone wrong, or even so-bad-it’s-good. It’s just bad – unfunny, unsexy, and uninterested in any of the real questions that its story might raise about women, romantic fantasy, and Jane Austen’s relationship to both.

By Deborah Yaffe, May 2 2013 01:00PM

The release date for Among the Janeites has been moved up about a month, to August 6 – we’re hoping to catch a bit of the publicity wave for the movie version of Shannon Hale’s novel Austenland, which hits theaters August 16.


Austenland is about a modern-day single woman whose romantic fantasies have been colonized by the BBC’s 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. (Colin Firth, wet shirt – need I say more?) She travels to a Regency-house-party-cum-theme-park, where the women wear bonnets and Empire-line dresses, the men wear knee breeches and embroidered waistcoats, and no one knows who’s a fellow guest and who’s an actor hired to provide a frisson of Mr. Darcy-esque excitement.


It’s a natural fit with my book about the real-life community of Janeites, who have been known to dress up in Regency costume and fantasize about Colin Firth. Along with a lot of far more serious acts of Austen appreciation, naturally.

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