Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 4 2018 01:00PM

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.


You’re welcome.


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.


By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 12 2018 01:00PM

The definitive screen adaptation of Mansfield Park has yet to be made. We’re still waiting for the first full-length movie of Sanditon, once planned for a 2017 release. And yet we are a mere three months away from the broadcast of a sequel to Unleashing Mr. Darcy, a deeply terrible Austen-themed TV movie from 2016.


Life is filled with unfathomable mysteries.


You remember Unleashing Mr. Darcy. It was a badly written, poorly acted Hallmark movie, based on a mediocre Austen fanfic updating Pride and Prejudice to the dog-show world. I watched it two years ago, in pursuit of Jane Austen video completism. Then I panned it. Then I forgot about it.


Apparently, others did not forget it. Apparently, in fact, others liked it – enough others that Hallmark has summoned the charm-free actor Ryan Paevey to reprise his role as dog-show judge Donovan Darcy, in a sequel slated to air in June. No word, at least on IMDB, about whether the talent-free Cindy Busby will return as dog-owner and romantic foil Elizabeth Scott.


Perhaps unaware that the name has already been used for a Jane Austen card game, the producers of this benighted project have christened it Marrying Mr. Darcy. I’m afraid I will have to watch, lest the Girl Scouts revoke my Jane Austen Video Completist badge. Maybe someone can suggest a drinking game to make the two hours pass more quickly.


By Deborah Yaffe, May 4 2017 01:00PM

The year advances apace, and yet there still doesn’t seem to be a release date for the supposed-to-come-out-in-2017 film adaptation of Sanditon, the novel Jane Austen died without finishing.


But another Austen-related film project is apparently now in the works: an adaptation of a 2016 young-adult novel called The Season, which updates Pride and Prejudice to the world of Texas debutantes.


The book, by Jonah Lisa Dyer and Stephen Dyer, passed me by when it came out last summer, but a movie? Bring it on! As regular blog readers know, I’ll see virtually anything semi-Austenian, on the big or small screen. Heck, I watched Unleashing Mr. Darcy.


Still, it’s worth remembering that the journey from studio-acquires-story to movie-appears-in-multiplex can be long and fraught. Remember Jane By the Sea, the romantic comedy/biopic that was flavor of the month two years ago? Yeah. Me neither.


By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 28 2016 01:00PM

We fans of Jane Austen movie adaptations have had kind of a dry spell for the last few years.


We’ve watched poor Sally Hawkins gallop through the streets of Bath, in the travesty that was the 2007 Persuasion. We’ve goggled at the utterly miscast cleavage of Billie Piper in the 2007 Mansfield Park. We’ve endured Austenland, survived Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (OK, I admit I haven’t actually seen that one yet – waiting for the DVD), and sat through – God help us – Unleashing Mr. Darcy.


So I think we really deserve to have Whit Stillman’s Love and Friendship, the first-ever screen adaptation of Lady Susan, be excellent. Early reviews out of the Sundance Film Festival (for instance, here) have been very positive, and now comes this trailer.


Squee! Looks ve-e-ry promising! Dry spell may be over!


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.


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