Jane Austen in Manhattan Review
The idea behind Jane Austen in Manhattan came from the discovery of a lost Jane Austen manuscript that turned up for auction at Sotheby's. The performing rights for the play were acquired by Melvyn Bragg for LWT, who passed this on to Ismail Merchant and James Ivory. The lost play, Sir Charles Grandison turned out to be nothing more than an early childhood work by the writer and there was little in it that could be used in a film. The team’s regular screen-writer, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, therefore used it in a contemporary setting, using it as the play that two Manhattan companies are competing to perform.
Pierre (Robert Powell) is an avant-garde, experimental theatre director. Even his audition methods are unorthodox, picking up strange characters in the streets to use in his surreal productions. He is not just a director though – to the company of actors who work for him, he is something of a guru - "We are not learning parts, we are learning... to be". The actors even work part time jobs and pay him out of their own pockets to keep the company going. Ariadne (Sean Young), finds herself caught-up in the group, drawn away from her husband Victor (Kurt Johnson) under the influence of Pierre’s intensely charismatic and seductive personality.
One of the wealthy patrons of the New York theatre scene acquires a manuscript of a lost Jane Austen play in an auction and Pierre is keen to get the funding and the rights to perform it. However, Lilianna (Anne Baxter), his former lover and the director of a rival theatre company, would also like to produce a more traditional version of the play as an opera. Through various methods of intrigue, both companies compete not only for the rights to the play, but for the actors themselves and the events of the play come to mirror events in real-life.
The origins of the film, from a minor Jane Austen work, are reflected in the slightness of the material. By no means is this one of Merchant Ivory’s strongest productions. The nature of funding of the arts is satirised, as are experimental theatre, musical theatre and rigid traditional theatre or possibly it is just limited to Broadway and off-Broadway theatre - either way the scope is limited, the plot is barely coherent for long stretches and it is hardly clear where satire ends and bad acting begins. For the most part this is dreadfully dull, but if you make it to the end it does sort of come together, although the message that different theatre traditions can learn for each other seems a little trite and obvious.
The picture quality is not particularly bad, but it is not particularly great either. The DVD is Region 0 and presents the film in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio which is probably the correct ratio as it was made for London Weekend Television. The picture is fairly grainy, soft and lacking in detail. Colours are for the most part fine, strong, bright and show a good range of tones. There are occasional marks on the print – a few scratches, reel-change marks. Actually, they are fairly frequent, although none of them are particularly bad. Overall, it is barely above VHS quality for the most part.
The sound is adequate for the nature of the film. There are no great demands placed on it, but even so there is still quite a bit of noise and harshness evident in normal dialogue.
The text based extras, About Film and About Merchant Ivory provide some good background on the origins of the screenplay and the film’s place in the works of Merchant Ivory. The Cast & Crew listing and Biographies are also useful. A short excerpt from the documentary The Wandering Company in Insight into Jane Austen (6:02) provides interviews with James Ivory, Ismail Merchant and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, focussing on Jane Austen in Manhattan and Quartet, made the following year, and gives some indication of the nature of the film-making business and how these films came to be financed. The extra material also includes a short documentary film from Merchant Ivory, Helen, Queen of Nautch Girls (30:22), written by James Ivory, narrated and directed by Anthony Korner. The documentary looks at one of the biggest stars in Bombay cinema, Helen, the star of over 500 Bollywood films. Using extensive footage of production numbers from Helen’s films, the documentary examines the influence of Western culture on Indian tradition, as well as how these films provide a glamour that most Indian people could never aspire to. This would surely have been an extra more appropriate to Bombay Talkie though. The Introduction by Melvyn Bragg (2:21) is taken from the South Bank Show that first presented the film.
Not an essential Merchant Ivory production by any means. As part of the Merchant Ivory Collection, the DVD is well-presented in terms of documentation and extra material, but the film itself is slight and the quality of the print used here is not great.