Stream With a Theme

Stream With a Theme: The Best Jane Austen Films

As the latest take on Persuasion comes to Netflix, Steph Green highlights some of the author's finest screen adaptations to date

“Life seems but a quick succession of busy nothings,” says heroine Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, a quote that neatly sums up the way Jane Austen detractors tend to classify her works: fussy, shallow, largely inconsequential. But beyond sipping cups of tea and sobbing in drafty parlours, Austen’s worlds are coloured far more richly than many give her credit for, especially when it comes to how women had to navigate the societal and economical imperatives linked to marriage in Regency England. Filmmakers have been inclined to agree, given the sheer volume of adaptation of her works across the big and small screen.

On the occasion of yet another adaptation – Persuasion, starring Dakota Johnson – landing on Netflix this Friday, we’re revisiting some of the best versions of the British scribe’s works that have made it onto celluloid. And while there are some stone-cold bangers when it comes to modernized adaptations of Austen’s work (here’s looking at you, Bridget Jones's Diary), this list functions as more of a purist’s view on the Jane Austen cinematic canon…

 

Sense and Sensibility (1995)

Where to stream it: Prime Video

One period film to rule them all. It’s hard to overstate the influence of Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility, which grossed $135 million worldwide, garnered eleven Oscar nominations, and single-handedly revived interest in both Jane Austen and the period drama genre at large. A witty and elegant adaptation of profound emotional depth, the against-all-odds crew of a Taiwanese director (Ang Lee) and first-time screenwriter (Emma Thompson) makes the film’s success all the more sweet. And while the Jane Austen Society of North America condemned the casting of Hugh Grant because he was “too handsome,” it’d be a lie to say that part of the film’s appeal wasn’t precisely the foppish charm of Grant, Greg Wise and Alan Rickman, all bright-eyed and breech-wearing, as well as the beautifully realised relationship between the Dashwood sisters. Marianne's cathartic sobbing at the film’s finale as Edward confesses his true affection never fails to work its magic.

 

Persuasion (1995)

Where to stream it: Prime Video (US)

Roger Michell’s 1995 version of Persuasion may well be the sexiest Austen adaptation on this list. Think you’d seen it all with Matthew Macfadyen’s hand flex in Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice? Just wait until you’ve seen Ciarán Hinds help our heroine Anne (Amanda Root) into a carriage, his hand nestled into the small of her back. Or the charged glances he throws at her across dinner tables, mise-en-scène bathed in glowing candlelight, as she squirms under his gaze with her saucer-wide eyes. Set in bucolic Bath, we watch in hope that the pair – who met nine years prior, where one party was persuaded (get it?) to not pursue a romantic engagement – will set about mending this long-lost love. As standard, yearning ensues. Going by the reviews for this new Persuasion, Michell’s version is the one you probably want to seek out.

 

Emma (1996)

Where to stream it: Prime Video

Look, this is a very silly film. Gwyneth Paltrow’s British accent is like something out of an SNL sketch, Ewan McGregor called it his “worst work” (and we’d be inclined to agree), and the fact that this came out a year after flawless rom-com Clueless – which used the same source material – does it no favours. But sue me: there’s just something so enchanting about Paltrow’s swan neck and serene beauty, effortlessly conveying Emma’s childish impropriety with the simplest furrow of the brow. Toni Collette is typically charming as Harriet Smith, one of Austen’s best characters, and there’s bags of charisma hidden among the supporting cast, too. Ignore the crude cinematography and glaring anachronisms, and you may find something enjoyable here – even if the film overall is as Austenian as a tourist shop on Oxford Street is British.

 

Mansfield Park (1999)

Where to stream it: Prime Video

Director Patricia Rozema sexes up the source novel in her adaptation of Mansfield Park, Austen’s third and most autobiographical novel about a young girl sent from her impoverished family to live in the titular grand estate – one built upon profits made from the slave trade. For those who remained unmoved by the puerile exploits Austen crafts in other stories, perhaps they’ll enjoy this: the only tale on this list with Sapphic frisson, postcolonial themes and, well, Hugh Bonneville in a silly wig. While the love story between the luminous Frances O’Connor and her cousin (yep) Jonny Lee Miller may raise an eyebrow, there’s a sturdiness and rigour to the text that lends itself well to the silver screen.

Pride & Prejudice (2005)

Where to stream it: Netflix

The hand flex. The hand flex. In a cloistered, corseted era where the depiction of passionate, explicit sex was an impossibility in laced-up publishing, the sight of Matthew Macfayden’s Mr. Darcy helping Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth Bennett into a carriage – forced to channel all his romantic and sexual frustrations into his fingertips – conjures more eroticism than most modern sex scenes could lay claim to. It’s just one moment of Joe Wright’s lush and lavish adaptation of Pride & Prejudice that enchants the senses, transplanting a beloved book to the screen with grace, ease, and excellent boiled potatoes. Pride? And prejudice? In this economy? Wright’s adaptation has it all.

 

Northanger Abbey (2007)

Where to watch it: Britbox

Adapted from the first novel that Jane Austen completed (although it was published posthumously), Northanger Abbey could be seen as rather slight, following the exploits of a seventeen-year-old girl whose hyperactive imagination and obsession with Gothic novels results in a series of naive faux-pas during a trip to Bath. But as our heroine-in-training Catherine Morland, Felicity Jones – in her first feature-length starring film role – brings a sweetness and freshness to what is otherwise a bit of a frivolous story. The cast is ripe with British talent, from Carey Mulligan to Liam Cunningham, and there are plenty of laughs to be had from the exploits of this clueless teenager.

 

Love & Friendship (2016)

Where to stream it: Netflix

While in his Oscar-nominated script for Metropolitan his characters debated whether the stories of Jane Austen are still interesting to modern day readers, we definitely know what side Whit Stillman is on. Love & Friendship, his adaptation of Austen’s epistolary novella Lady Susan, is a delightfully deadpan and uproarious union of Austen’s social commentary and his own loquacious wit. Kate Beckinsale stars as a meddling widow who seeks to improve her family’s fortune, flanked by Chloë Sevigny, Stephen Fry and Morfydd Clark in supporting roles. Droll and knowing enough that you half-expect characters to turn and wink to camera, the film is so cunning and pitch-perfect that you forgive the nagging feeling that Beckinsale fails the period drama test (having a face that knows what a phone is).

 

Emma. (2020)

Where to stream it: Netflix

Autumn de Wilde’s Emma. understands that Austen’s 1815 novel is not the sappy melodrama her works are often short-sightedly pigeonholed as. This comedy features gloriously playful performances (Josh O’ Connor), delightful naivety (Mia Goth) and pastel-laden, Regency era opulence to die for (literally every outfit that Anya Taylor-Joy wears). While Austen herself wrote that she was going to “take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like,” Taylor-Joy plays the role with likeability: no mean feat when she’s spoiled and meddlesome, too. What’s more, there’s a resolutely British sense of humour here that’s missing from the 1996 adaptation, what with that film’s Weinstein-shaped paw prints all over it.

Persuasion is now in UK cinemas and is released on Netflix on 15 July.

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