Living in the past – Austenland review

Austenland

By Jess Lomas
November 27, 2013

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen’s work remains an infinite well of inspiration for modern authors and filmmakers. The latest in this canon, Austenland, is sure to divide Janeites (Austen fans), but is ultimately a fun, if somewhat uneven, romp.

Based on the novel by Shannon Hale, it tells of Jane Hayes (Keri Russell), a 30-something Austen-tragic obsessed with Pride and Prejudice (and specifically, Mr Darcy). She is a caricature; the eternal spinster with little fashion sense and a penchant for tea cups who decorates her bedroom with Darcy paraphernalia, much like a teenage girl would.

Austenland

Hoping to escape the troubles of real life, Jane spends her life savings on a trip to Austenland in England. The immersive Regency era experience, run by Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour), has everything an Austen fan could dream of: period rooms, costumes, activities, and pre-arranged love interests. It’s here that Jane meets fellow guests Miss Elizabeth Charming (Jennifer Coolidge) and Lady Amelia Heartwright (Georgia King). The in-character staff includes Captain George East (Ricky Whittle), Mr. Henry Nobley (JJ Feild), and Martin (Bret McKenzie); the latter two forming a love triangle with Jane. Despite all the trimmings of her dreams, it doesn’t take Jane long to realise that this fantasy world isn’t what she’d long imagined it to be.

Debut director Jerusha Hess was an odd choice to helm Austenland; she’s better known for her screenplay Napoleon Dynamite. Perhaps it’s the combination of Hess with Producer Stephenie Meyer (Twilight) that resulted in the tonal confusion throughout the movie. Hess pushes wacky comedy while attempting to keep the feature ‘chick-friendly,’ and despite being sold as a romance, it’s as a female-centric comedy that Austenland more consistently delivers.

Austenland

In general the performances have a hint of pantomime to them, and scene-stealer Jennifer Coolidge never fails to elicit laughter as the crass American duck-out-of-water, in turn almost single-handedly elevating the flick. Russel is delightful as usual; Whittle as the camp Captain George East is surprising and memorable; and it’s nice to see McKenzie in such a genre piece. These are clearly actors having fun with the material, and that radiates through the screen.

To label Austenland as merely a guilty pleasure is misguided; it may fail to match the wit and originality of Austen’s own work, but in paying homage to the legion of fans all hoping to meet their Mr Darcy, and exacerbating the nature of Austen fandom, this breezy picture is refreshingly entertaining.

3/5

Austenland arrives in select Australian cinemas November 28, 2013.

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