AUSTENLAND. Starring: Keri Russell, JJ Field, Jennifer Coolidge, Bret McKenzie, and Jane Seymour. Directed by Jerusha Hess. Rated PG (Mild sexual references, coarse language and violence). 97 min.
This is a British-American romantic comedy movie that is based on Shannon Hale’s 2007 novel of the same name about a young woman, who is obsessed with Mr. Darcy, the hero of Jane Austen’s 1813 novel, “Pride and Prejudice”.
Jane Hayes (Keri Russell) is single and besotted with Colin Firth’s portrayal of Mr. Darcy in the 1995 BBC version of “Pride and Prejudice”. Her boyfriend has broken up with her, and she goes looking for an attractive man to replace him. She spends her life-savings to travel to a British theme resort called “Austenland”, at which the Regency era of Jane Austen is created for tourists to enjoy. The theme park creates Austin’s world, and is dedicated to bringing to life her early 19th. Century novels. Female visitors to Austenland pay for the privilege of modelling themselves on Austen’s heroines, and relevant suitors are supplied for them according to the cost of the package which is purchased.
Jane’s unfortunate obsession is ruining her life. No real man can compare with the fantasies she has about Mr. Darcy. Back home, her apartment is filled with everything to do with Jane Austen, including a life-sized cardboard cut-out of Colin Firth she has in her bedroom. At the theme park, however, Jane’s package is a cheap one, and this has unfortunate consequences for how she is treated.
The comedy is broad-brushed and blunt, and tries to satirize Austen and her characters in a light-hearted way by touching humorously on the questions that fascinated Austen as a writer. It plays cleverly at times with the novels of Austen. However, in taking pleasure in mimicking the scenes that fascinated Austen, it romanticizes her novels in a very different way and its humour slips into obvious slapstick.
This is not a movie for anyone who wants to forge fresh insights about the world of Jane Austen – either in her writings, or her astute observations. Nor will one find answers to the questions that Austen legitimately raises about life, the independence of women, or gender relationships. In demonstrating the film’s fantasy touch, Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour), the owner of Austenland, decides the plot for each guest who visits the park according to what they can afford, and Jennifer Coolidge is an over-sexed, American tourist, who knows nothing at all about Jane Austen, nor feels she needs to know. The movie makes fun of the world that Austen has created; sometimes its satire works, but mostly it doesn’t.
Keri Russel has a difficult role to play as the besotted fan of Austen and she does well, as does Jennifer Coolidge in her role as a tourist looking for uncomplicated attachments. Parodying the style of Jane Austen, the movie sets up a romantic relationship between Jane Hayes (in the role she is given) and a surly Mr. Henry Nobley (JJ Field) as Mr. Darcy. Nobley ends up playing his part straight, perhaps mirroring in contemporary terms the kind of relationship that Jane Austen talked and wrote about very differently long ago. The challenge for Jane is for her to reconcile herself to all that has happened to her at Austenland. Somehow, she must work out what is real in her relationships, versus what has been arranged in the package that she purchased. Not surprisingly, she is attracted to a lowly stable hand, called Martin (Bret McKenzie), but he is also an actor paid to perform in a set role.
This is a movie for those who know the novels of Jane Austen well, so long as they don’t expect anything remotely like what Austen was really writing about. It is a comedy that plays on an artifice that is novel, but it is a fantasy romp through Austen that runs out of steam.
Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.
Out November 28th 2013.