Mood #3: The old order is changing. I’m antsy. I want to shake things up!
Feeling feisty? A bit like expanding your horizons and allowing for alternative visions of Jane Austen’s life work? Then the following JAAs, the ones I refer to as the “New Takes,” might be just right.
Seriously, now. Is Austen’s novel Mansfield Park anyone’s favorite? Sure, the heroine Fanny Price is a real sweetheart, kind to the elderly, kind to the idiot she falls in love with, kind, in fact, to everyone even when they treat her condescendingly for her role as the adopted daughter of the household. But sometimes you want your heroine to have a bit of a naughty enlivening spark, which most Austen heroines have, but which is mostly lacking in most film adaptations of this novel. The 1999 movie Mansfield Park, however, starring Frances O’Connor as Fanny, is not afraid to explore some darker places, like Sir Thomas Bertram’s mistreatment of the slaves on his sugar plantation in Antigua, or Fanny’s sometimes less-than-kind observations about relations and their motives for their relationships. Oh, and did I mention that it also co-stars Jonny Lee Miller? Regardless of what mood you’re in it seems that Jonny Lee Miller might be just what the doctor ordered, at least when it comes to casting JAAs.
Although not technically an adaptation, the excellent, quasi-biographical movie Miss Austen Regrets can also hit the spot when you are ready to understand more about the many challenges Austen faced while writing her classics: the need to marry for money and security; the difficulties of depending upon one’s male family members for financial guidance and advice (even though said brothers might not know the first thing about finance); the debilitating nature of illnesses that strike victims when they are too young. Although I rather suspect that Olivia Williams is much more objectively beautiful than the real Austen (who she portrays here), she nonetheless does a wonderful job of portraying Austen’s sometimes caustic humor, while also highlighting her many kindnesses to those she loved, among them her sister Cassandra (played here by veteran screen actor Greta Scacchi) and her niece Fanny. It’s melancholy, and it’s wonderful, and it will leave you feeling even more appreciation than you knew possible for the real heroine of all of Austen’s books: herself, for writing them in the first place.
One adaptation of which I was not as fond, but which still qualifies as a “New Take,” is Whit Stillman’s 2016 film Love and Friendship, based on Austen’s early and epistolary novel Lady Susan. Perhaps I did not enjoy this because I’ve never read Lady Susan; more likely it was because the movie felt really long and really caustic without displaying any of the more-accepting-of-human-nature humor and kindness that I think of when I think of Jane Austen. (Like the scene in Persuasion when all of Anne Elliott’s extended family members are complaining to her about other members of the family and she listens with kindness and equanimity even though she clearly knows that said family members are all a bit off their respective rockers.) This story features the recently widowed Lady Susan Vernon as she travels from estate to estate and family to family, seeking a wealthy husband for herself and for her daughter, which was a common enough theme in all of Austen’s works. I could never quite decide, however, if we were supposed to like Lady Susan or not (although she is played with gusto by Kate Beckinsale), as she is gossipy with her best friend Mrs. Johnson, is usually quite nasty to her daughter Frederica, and has at least one dalliance with a married man. Still if you’re looking for something with Austen’s clear-eyed take on early nineteenth-century society and Whit Stillman’s unique knowledge of twentieth century upper-crust life (he’s most well-known for his movies Metropolitan and The Last Days of Disco), this will be the JAA for you.