Every now and again, along comes a Jane Austen adaptation, spinoff, or fanfic that, in its wishful thinking and reassuring punch-pulling, reminds us by contrast of how fearlessly unsentimental Austen is. Some of these remixes are pretty good (see under: Sittenfeld, Curtis). And some, like the movies with which I spent this past Saturday night, are pretty godawful.
In my continued pursuit of Jane Austen video completism – and in an effort to warn other Janeites before they commit themselves -- I curled up with a bowl of popcorn to watch the Hallmark Channel’s Marrying Mr. Darcy. But I didn’t stop there. Courtesy of Hallmark’s schedulers, I spent the preceding two hours re-watching the 2016 movie to which this one is a sequel: Unleashing Mr. Darcy, a Pride and Prejudice update set in the dog-show world.
Blog readers may recall that I was not a fan of either the first movie or the book on which it was based, and I cannot say that the movie improves with age: The acting is still wooden, the writing still execrable, the production values still bargain-basement. If I found it less offensive this time around, it was only because I was prepared.
Unleashing Mr. Darcy tells the story of the romance between perky Elizabeth Scott (Cindy Busby), unjustly fired from her teaching job at a posh D.C. high school, and rich-‘n’-handsome Donovan Darcy (Ryan Paevey), dog-show judge, successful businessman, devoted big brother, and – just for good measure – selfless philanthropist.
After several occasions of inexplicable, unmotivated hostility and rudeness on her part, the two bond over their shared love of Cavalier King Charles spaniels and patch up their differences in one of those climactic public reconciliations, complete with applause from an audience of strangers, that happen so often in the movies and so seldom in real life.
Marrying Mr. Darcy picks up the romance some indeterminate number of months later, the passage of time signified by the altered hairstyles of several of the main characters and the presence of a completely different actress playing Donovan’s younger sister, Zara. After a kissy-face proposal, we quickly find ourselves in the midst of that hoary sitcom plot staple: We Wanted a Small, Simple Wedding, But Everything Seems To Be Spinning Out of Control.
Leading the charge toward a wedding featuring a designer gown, a society church, and a guest list in the hundreds is Donovan’s Aunt Violet, our stand-in for Lady Catherine de Bourgh. In the first movie, the veteran actress Frances Fisher tries valiantly to have fun with the role of an icy, manipulative villainess determined to scotch her nephew’s interest in the déclassé Elizabeth, but she is stymied by the egregious writing, which gives her little to sink her scenery-chewing teeth into.
At least, though, Unleashing Mr. Darcy allows her to be a villain. Marrying Mr. Darcy has a position to maintain: It’s the inaugural offering in Hallmark’s feel-good June Weddings series. Thus, it must follow the template of the 1940 Laurence Olivier-Greer Garson Pride and Prejudice in giving Austen’s arrogant, tyrannical Lady Catherine a heart of gold. Or, to quote Zara, “Aunt Violet, I’ve always known it. You’re just a softie underneath.”
And so Marrying presents us with a Violet who apologizes for trying to sabotage the Elizabeth-Donovan romance, gives her future niece-in-law heirloom family jewelry, and helps bring the young lovers together after a temporary estrangement. She’s sorry for interfering, she explains, but she still remembers Donovan as a heartbroken, newly orphaned nineteen-year-old. (Perhaps Aunt Violet has incipient Alzheimer’s? Those of us who had tuned in for the reprise of Unleashing Mr. Darcy had just been told that Darcy was twenty-one when he lost his parents in a tragic, yet unintentionally hilarious, boating accident.)
The new movie includes flashes of the Aunt Violet we could love to hate. Informed of Elizabeth’s shocking plan to return to her teaching career post-wedding, Violet purrs, in full 1950s Good Housekeeping mode, “That’s who you were. Now you will be Mrs. Donovan Darcy. That’s a very important full-time job.”
Alas, these hints of a more entertaining movie struggling to break out of the saccharine handcuffs go nowhere. Instead, it’s typical romcom fare, Billionaire Boyfriend division (“The Louvre may approve an after-hours visit for your honeymoon!” Darcy’s helpful assistant informs him.)
But Darcy is no Christian Gray: This is a strictly TV-G enterprise, and therefore, although both Donovan and Elizabeth are over thirty and have no discernible religious convictions, they maintain chastely separate residences, and their relationship shows no signs of having progressed below the neck. Like everything else about these movies, the prevailing temperature is tepid.
While the bland safety of these films is, of course, typical of the made-for-TV romance genre, it’s precisely not typical of the ruthlessly realistic Jane Austen. She has no qualms about leaving Lady Catherine as overbearing and snobbish at the end of Pride and Prejudice as she was at the beginning, even if the pragmatic Elizabeth does eventually engineer a reconciliation. It’s too bad that so many of Austen’s adapters don’t understand the very things about her that keep us coming back.