This is going to be either a really short or a really long post because I kind of have nothing to say about this film but I also feel I could say nothing about it at great length.
Very, very technically speaking Jane Austen in Manhattan is an adaption of a work by Jane Austen.
Where to begin?
In the late 70s / early 80s a manuscript was discovered called Sir Charles Grandison, or The Happy Man, by Jane Austen. This was authenticated as yes, genuinely having been written by Jane Austen and yes definitely that Jane Austen not some other woman called Jane Austen like the Jane Austen from Greensboro, North Carolina or something and so was put up for auction by Sotheby’s.
There it was purchased by Merchant Ivory (the film producers) who felt that securing the exclusive ability to produce a cinematic adaptation of a previously unknown work by one of the great authors of the English canon would be a major artistic and commercial coup.
Sir Charles Grandison, or The Happy Man was, indeed, a work by Jane Austen. It was, however, a work of juvenilia by Jane Austen and, while I’m not completely clear when it was written, the film itself and information about the film I’ve been able to dredge up online suggests she probably would have written it when she was about twelve.
Moreover it was clearly based on the Richardson novel The History of Sir Charles Grandison which is, um, Richardson’s most boring novel. Like, it’s been a while since I’ve read Richardson so take this is a pinch of salt but my understanding of the basic context of THOSCG is that he wrote Pamela or Virtue Rewarded about a sexy rake guy trying to “seduce” his hot servant and everyone was like “woo, sexy rake guy, so sexy” so then he wrote Clarissa, or the History of a Young Lady, about a sexy rake guy who actually drives a young woman to suicide and everyone was like “oh, that’s sad, but …woo, sexy rake guy, so sexy”. And, so he was finally like, dudes, stop finding my sexy rake sexy guys sexy and wrote a book about a very nice hero who is very nice to people and upholds both moral and Christian virtues.
Of course, obviously, you can’t write a book that’s just about a hero who is a nice man with good, Christian virtues being good and virtuous at people because there’d be no conflict so The History of Sir Charles Grandison also includes a sexy rake character (with the fabulous name of Sir Hargrave Pollexfen), but it’s okay because he’s definitely the villain, and so definitely nobody could ever, under any circumstances find him sexy and awesome.
Enter twelve-year-old Jane Austen.
So yes. Sir Charles Grandison, or The Happy Man is basically twelve-year-old Jane Austen’s fanfic of—quite specifically—the relatively short section in The History of Sir Charles Grandison where the heroine gets abducted by a sexy rake.
This is honestly, and don’t mean this pejoratively, the most fanfic thing I have ever heard. It kind of makes me feel that if Jane Austen had been born in the year 2000 then, sure, today she’d just be publishing her first novel and it would be a searingly insightful feminist critique of England in the post #metoo era. But she would also absolutely have an AO3 account and it would absolutely include at least one fic about One Direction during The Purge.
While there was a lot wrong with Jane Austen in Manhattan, and I’ll go into the a lot wrong with it in a minute, it does get credit for this one thing: that I did not think it was possible for me to love Jane Austen more than I already did but the discovery of her early 19th century darkfic proved me 100% wrong.
I am so glad she’s on our ten-pound notes.
Anyway. Imagine for a moment that you are Merchant Ivory and you have paid hundreds of thousand of pounds for Jane Austen’s The Very Secret Diaries of Sir Hargrave Pollexfen and are trying to work out how the fuck to make your money back.
Like what the actual fuck would you actually do? I’m a professional writer and I have no idea.
To give them their due, they just fucking rolled with it.
So Jane Austen in Manhattan is about people trying to make an adaptation of a lost Austen manuscript called Sir Charles Grandison, or The Happy Man. And, as far as I can tell, the scenes from the production (productions—there are two competing producers, that’s kind of the plot) do seem to use the actual text that Austen wrote. It’s just, because it’s a fragment of a fanfic, there’s clearly not much very actual text and so they get around this by making one of the competing productions an operetta (so it’s got an excuse just to repeat lines over and over and over and over again) and the other one a weird experimental arthouse piece so it’s got an excuse to have loads of bizarre physical bits in between the actual, very limited, dialogue.
You might notice that I’m already beginning to get a bit incoherent. Long term followers of this blog who remember the Grantathon might recall something similar happening to me when I was trying to talk about Night Train to Venice (which is to this day kept from being the worst film I’ve ever seen only by the fact I’m genuinely not sure it can be called a film).
tl;dr Jane Austen in Manhattan is exactly what you would expect it to be given the context of its production.
tl;dr-er Jane Austen in Manhattan is exactly what you would expect from a film that unironically includes the line “she’s CRAY-zee, they’re ALL CRAY-zee, he has that eFFECT on people!”
The ‘he’ in this line is Pierre, a not at all French director/producer, played by Jesus of Nazareth who is locked in a weird mortal artistic sex-death rivalry with a different director/producer named Liliana, played by All About Eve. A major feature of their strange Machiavellian duelling Svengali thing is their competition for the affections of Rachel from Blade Runner. For a terrible film, this has a weirdly prestigious cast.
And, unfortunately, that’s kind of all there is. It’s two people, both of whom want to put on an adaptation of a play they know to be unadaptable, bizarrely convinced that they have to use the same cast as each other, who used to fuck. I mean, I guess from a certain perspective is probably a satire of the New York theatre scene in the 80s. But I don’t know, man, I wasn’t there.
I think, very straightforwardly, you probably shouldn’t watch this movie. It’s two hours of your life you’re never going to back. Although given how weird its continuity and chronology are … maybe you will? Like I’m not totally convinced that me sitting here right now, writing this blog post, isn’t actually some kind of flash-forward and I’m not, in a very real sense, still watching the movie somehow. That’s what this film is like. It just has that eFFECT on people!
If you do choose to watch it for completeness, tell yourself very firmly “I’m into this shit” because if you can get into the right mindset you can kind of convince yourself it’s brilliant. Although not, I should stress, for any reason you could ever articulate to another person.
If I had to try I’d might say that it’s like … it’s like … if you were trying to do a production of A Chorus Line except you got David Lynch to direct it and somehow managed to cast Nicholas Cage in every single role.
Or maybe I was just very very tired.
So at the start of this project I defined my rating scale on the one thousand to twelve thousand a year incomes of Austen heroes and, somewhat arbitrarily, set six thousand a year as the quality of the 1940s Pride and Prejudice. I later came to be concerned that by doing this I’d shut off the bottom half of the scale because I was expecting most things I watched as part of the process to be better than a 1940s film where Lizzie Bennet dresses as Scarlett O’Hara and shoots a bow and arrow.
I no longer have this concern.
I’m giving this 2000 a year, not because I reasonably expect anything else to be worse but because it does, I think, deserve a bonus point for the sheer ludicrousness of its origin story.