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Jane Austen In Manhattan
cast: Anne Baxter, Robert Powell, Michael Wager, Tim Choate, and Sean Young

director: James Ivory

111 minutes (PG) 1980
Merchant Ivory DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 6/10
reviewed by Debbie Moon
Manhattan, the 1970s: a collector purchases a rare manuscript by Jane Austen - a childhood attempt at a stage play - and decides to have it staged. Two of his friends begin rehearsals on rival productions, each hoping to win the right to stage the piece. Aging traditionalist Lilliana (Anne Baxter) plans a grand production in period costume: but the charismatic Pierre (Robert Powell) begins developing the piece as a surreal 'happening', encouraging his cast to throw away their training and discover themselves rather than the text.
   Each wants the impressionable Ariadne (Sean Young) for the lead role: Pierre seems to plan to seduce her; Lilliana's concerns are mostly motherly. As their battle for Ariadne begins to mirror the plot of the play, fact and fiction begin to blur - and the day of the two dress rehearsals, and the collector's decision, is approaching...
   Perhaps the best way to view this is as an early attempt at Charlie Kaufman's Adaptation. The rights to the genuine Jane Austen manuscript were snapped up and passed to director Ivory, who soon realised this childish scribble was un-producible as it stood, and commissioned long-time collaborator Ruth Prawer Jhabvala to make something of it. This tale of artistic and personal struggle in a Manhattan of gurus and dinner parties, self-discovery and uncertain sexual liberation, is the result.
   A languid ramble through overlong rehearsals, pretentious conversations and fumbling journeys towards maturity, the film is very much of its time. Pierre's visionary directorial genius has dated rather badly, and his cult-leader hold over his adoring cast tends to arouse dislike, not admiration. The performances however are excellent: Powell and Baxter in particular light up the screen, finding viciousness beneath the surface of their polite encounters.
   This is a curiosity that won't appeal to everyone, but it does draw you into a world that's now every bit as distant and idealised as Austen's time. It's ideal for anyone with an interest in the process of performance, or looking for a bit of artistic nostalgia.
   A good selection of DVD extras includes biographies, information on the manuscript, interviews and an introduction by Melvyn Bragg. There's also an early Merchant Ivory documentary about a famous Indian dancer, giving you an extra half hour of rather contrasting entertainment.

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