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.