Film critic Scott Wilson joins some cinematic legends for a steamy book club with something to say.
Book Club – ★★★☆☆
Dir. Bill Holderman; Starring: Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Mary Steenburgen; Rating: 12A; Runtime: 104 mins
Last week’s FilmSpace looked at a film that should have delivered in spades but offered very little. Solo: A Star Wars Film struggled to justify itself, and that flaw appears to have translated over to box office takings, with the fourth Star Wars film in two and a half years drastically underperforming.
Not all films reach for lofty heights, but no film exists in a cultural vacuum. While Book Club won’t reinvent the wheel, it does nudge a tried and tested formula into some unfamiliar territory. It does it politely, in an inoffensive and charming way, sure to take its intended audience with it.
Diane (Keaton), Vivian (Fonda), Sharon (Bergen), and Carol (Steenburgen) are close friends, having attended a book club for over thirty years. Comfortably into their retirement, they all have hang-ups in their personal lives, most of which go unnoticed and unconfronted until the still-sexually-active Diane chooses Fifty Shades of Grey for their next novel. After a little hesitation, they give it a go.
The Fifty Shades cinematic trilogy disappointed in countless ways, not least because of how it didn’t confront a genuine problem with prudishness in Britain. While countless people read the book series on their morning commutes, the film adaptions felt cold, safe, and somehow still shot with a male gaze.
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The books, on the other hand, led to sex toy companies experiencing a boon, coverage of kink in mainstream media, and a moment’s relaxing of our society’s inability to talk about sex.
Book Club isn’t a titillating romp, but it does give to the Fifty Shades series the potential it could have had. Diane’s husband died eighteen months prior to the events of the film, and she feels evermore motherly to her two adult daughters. Her responsibility to them leaves her with no time for her own pleasure, including time needed for dating. It also means her daughters only see her as their mother and not as a woman with her own life.
Through her reading of the provocative novel, Diane begins to question these accepted norms. Is she really over the hill and ready to be in care? Is she forever a mother whose sole purpose is to nurture her ‘kids’? By using a familiar book as its launchpad, the audience is able to latch on to this idea of shaking something up; in this case, it’s the expected norms of ageing and how it impacts people.
Each of the women are experiencing their own woes. Vivian is the most active of the bunch, aware that she’ll sleep when she’s dead, but her success and sex life belie the fact she’s never had a romantic connection. Sharon never got over the separation from her husband almost twenty years ago, all the while fully believing in acting her age, shunning the idea of sex and online dating because it’s not the proper thing for those in their 70s. Carol is married, but hasn’t had sex with her husband in six months, frustrated and confused over how to reignite the flame.
On the surface, the four women – Fonda especially – make for such pleasant company. What could have been an hour and a half of schmaltzy good vibes is elevated by their on-screen presence and believable chemistry. Every innuendo – of which there are many – sounds exactly like the kind shared between loving and familiar friends.
It may be the case some retirees feel inspired by the end, but it’s as important that those who shape the cultural conversation realise our expiry date really is once we hit the grave and not a second before.
Because films with protagonists of this age are so rare, it does try to cram in a little bit of everything. Where a film featuring young and beautiful twenty-somethings would focus on one relationship dynamic (see the recently released On Chesil Beach), Book Club uses each protagonist to explore something different. It makes for a broad canvass, but also for shallow development. While the sentiments are all appreciated, there are no surprises here.
But maybe the film’s existence is surprise enough. This type of film isn’t new – Amy Schumer’s I Feel Pretty is still in cinemas – but while its seize-the-day message of empowerment is familiar, its focus on older women is wholly more notable.
As the women attempt to recalibrate their situations, you realise there is a kind of liberation happening. For the most part, it’s a liberation from expectation. We don’t talk about the sex lives of the elderly, we don’t think of them as assertive protagonists, and we don’t consider the difficulties inherent in very long-term relationships. Where Fifty Shades tried to change the public mood about sex, Book Club is trying to change the perception of older people in our society.
Which is why it doesn’t necessarily feel like a ‘grey pound’ film. It may be the case some retirees feel inspired by the end, but it’s as important that those who shape the cultural conversation realise our expiry date really is once we hit the grave and not a second before. Book Club is a charming, warm, fun film that teeters on the brink of sentimentality, but saves it with a star cast and by having something to say.