A Review of Austenland, written and directed by Jerusha Hess; based on the novel by Shannon Hale
by REBECCA, September 4, 2013
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a movie in possession of both Keri Russell and literary intertexts, must be worth seeing, amiright? Rarely has a universally-acknowledged truth been so epically false.
Austenland is the story of plain Jane (Russell), unlucky in love and (not unrelatedly) obsessed with Jane Austen—the books, the characters, the time period, the aesthetics, everything. Her guest room is an altar to her obsession with Mr. Darcy in particular, and she has a life-size cardboard cutout of Colin Firth’s Darcy in her living room. Apathetic and convinced that the only good men are fictional, Jane buys a package to go to Austenland, an immersive vacation where guests stay in an Austenesque manor and are the center of their own story, complete with men, food, entertainments, and, of course, romance. Jane can only afford the basic package, though, so rather than a Lizzie Bennet, she is relegated to navys, browns, and the servants’ quarters. Drama (kind of) ensues; you can guess the rest.
People, I kind of don’t know where to start with this mess.
Austenland is always torn between showing scorn for Jane as a pathetic, deluded loser who romanticizes fiction instead of living life, and showing that she is different than all those other losers, so she’s not an appealing character. And I fundamentally refuse to believe that this character yo-yo-ing is Keri Russell’s fault. I mean, this is freaking Felicity we’re talking about: girlfriend makes pathetic romantic appealing as hell.
The premise of Austenland is that the actors there act charming and dote on the women, giving them the experience of their fantasy Austen heroines. The movie is determined to pull one over on its audience in the “reveal” of a clever “twist” (my scare quotes, if it isn’t clear, suggest that this “reveal” is no revelation) having to do with whether the men are really acting or if their romance is real. However, it doesn’t matter whether whether the romance is real or contrived because both the Mr. Darcy character and the stableboy character are so absolutely unappealing.
Don’t even get me started on Jennifer Coolidge, whose “dumb American” character has, at this point in cinematic history, become so unrelentingly clichéd that she may as well have been plucked out of another movie and stuck into this one. James Callis and Georgia King add dashes of random absurdity that do little more than remind the viewers that we wish this movie would be as absurd in its execution as it is in its premise.
Really, JJ Feild, as the Mr. Darcyish character is the only one who can get away with playing it straight, because Austenland, for all that it alleges to be comic, is, at heart, a fairly uncreative and conservative reinscription of the notion that every woman’s fantasy is Mr. Darcy, and if they act Lizzy Bennet-esque, then that fantasy will come true.
And that’s the real failure, I think: that the movie, in the end, only replicates Austen as opposed to conversing with her. Jane’s journey is an unsubtle parallel of an Austen character’s and fails to address any of the questions that could have been interestingly raised about a modern woman obsessed with Regency times. In a movie packed with gags, references, uncomfortable humor, and lots and lots of curled hair, there really isn’t a single moment of charm. Nor is there any hint of what someone like Jane might find appealing about Jane Austen’s world to begin with. Indeed, Austenland seems to be operating under the assumption that it doesn’t need to explain what’s appealing about Austen, because we all already agree. Rather, from the opening scenes of the film, it is clear that young Jane will be taught a lesson: you must be disillusioned of your fantasies to have a chance at real happiness. It is equally clear, I think, that this is a lesson Austen has taught us many times over—and with far wittier dialogue.