The mid-‘90s were salad days for Jane Austen fans. 1995 alone saw the release of screen adaptations of Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion, as well as Clueless, that splendid modern-dress teen-comedy adaptation of Emma; a more straightforward version of Emma hit screens the following year.
But ’95 is a banner year for Austen freaks above all, perhaps, because of the BBC television version of Pride and Prejudice, starring Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy. Much as I like Firth, I personally prefer the 2005 big-screen version, with Keira Knightly as Elizabeth Bennett and Matthew MacFayden as Darcy. But Austen fanatics, I understand, overwhelmingly prefer Firth’s dour interpretation.
This is certainly the case with Jane Hayes, the heroine of the new film Austenland. Jane (Keri Russell), an American who sleeps in a bedroom full of 18th-Century-style kitsch, owns a cardboard cutout of Firth in his Darcy get-up—a departing boyfriend punches this two-dimensional rival in the kisser.
Now in her 30s, Jane’s pretty sure that her Austen fixation isn’t getting her anywhere. Nonetheless, she invests her meager life savings on a trip to England, to a theme resort in a beautiful country manor that offers an immersion in period role-playing for Austen freaks, with actors playing variously dashing or snobbish or buffoonish types in the author’s vein. Once Jane gets there—after walking through the terminal at Heathrow in Regency drag—the Boss Lady (Jane Seymour) coldly makes it clear that her budget package puts her squarely in “poor relation” territory in terms of the experience.
In other words, though unwittingly, she finds herself in the position of an Austen heroine. And like such a heroine, she soon finds potential romance—both with a “stable boy” (Bret McKenzie) and with a starchy, Darcy-ish “officer” (J. J. Feild). But where, if at all, does fantasy end and true love begin?
Based on a 2007 novel by Shannon Hale, Austenland was co-written (with Hale) and directed by Jerusha Hess, half of the husband-and-wife team that made Napoleon Dynamite, Nacho Libre and the underrated Gentlemen Broncos. The theme—American Anglophilia—is a promising one for an eccentric romantic comedy. It’s even a bit timely, considering the recent Yank media preoccupation with the new Whelp of Windsor.
The movie also has the benefit of beautiful Keri Russell, an actress who isn’t used as often or as well as she could be—her last real triumph was in Adrienne Shelly’s superb Waitress in 2007. Russell isn’t showy, but there’s a directness to her, and she has an open, responsive romantic manner. In her scenes with the guys here, Jane wears a living-in-the-moment smile of delight simply that something is going on in her life, and she’s quite beguiling.
Russell also rescues the film from utter triviality. Magnificent as Jane Austen’s novels are, there’s something irritating about modern women using these stories, in which near-powerless women can be banished to scorn and irrelevance if they fail to obtain a marriage, as fantasy fodder—willingly embracing social strictures to which Austen, with all her briliance and imagination, had little choice but to conform.
I don’t know if Hale’s novel touches on this, but in the movie it shows up only tacitly, in the liberating use of Nelly’s “Hot in Herre” on the soundtrack, and more importantly in the way Russell’s Jane seems to recoil from even play-acting these situations once she’s in them. (A friend of mine went to Afghanistan as a journalist, and was surprised at how demeaning she found the requirement that she keep her head covered.)
Russell can’t save Austenland, sad to say. After a pretty amusing initial setup, the film just doesn’t come together. Much of the comedy in the Hess pictures arises from a sort of wobbly, not-firing-on-all-cylinders timing to the gags. It can be devastatingly funny when it works, as in Napoleon Dynamite, or in the rather hilarious amateur play sequence in Austenland. But this comic style is always in danger of deflating, and it does so, big time, in Austenland’s homestretch.
The later scenes, which try to resolve the romance through various revelations and declarations, fall with a thud. They aren’t funny, they aren’t romantic, for me they weren’t even fully coherent. And they’re only poignant in an external sense—you feel a little bad for the actors, trying like crazy to make this stuff work, while Hess’s camera stares unhelpfully at them.
Austenland is a mess, and for me it failed altogether as a romance, but it’s by no means without laughs. Aside from Russell’s performance, my favorite aspect of the film is the performance of Jennifer Coolidge as Elizabeth Charming, a game middle-aged party girl who befriends Jane. Elizabeth Charming doesn’t know the difference between Jane Austen and Austin, Texas; she went to the resort because she knows the Empire dresses will show her figure off to good advantage.
But she dives right into the spirit of the resort, spouting ridiculous improvisation in an absurd accent, and trying to get everyone involved in the fun. Miss Charming is shameless, but she’s just trying to help things along, and the same could be said for Coolidge.