The desire for life to imitate fantasy is nothing new. We live in a world full of cosplay, fandom conventions and geek culture – something I deeply cherish. So when I heard the concept behind the movie “Austenland” – about an immersive English resort where Austen fanatics could go and pretend they’re living in the Regency era – I was certainly intrigued. I can even see myself wanting to visit such a place: empire-waist gowns, English accents, early 19th-century manners and Mr. Darcys galore – where do I sign up? Such is the thought process of the film’s heroine, the aptly named Jane (Keri Russell). She’s the kind of woman who has a life-size cardboard cutout of Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy; the kind of woman who has had the first three chapters of “Pride and Prejudice” memorized since she was 13. So when she hears of Austenland, it’s a no brainer: she throws down her life savings and off she goes.
Austenland is swarming with hired actors who play everything from potential suitors to the help. Upon arrival she meets those who will keep her company during her stay, including fellow guest Miss Elizabeth Charming (Jennifer Coolidge), the resort’s snooty owner, Mrs. Wattlesworth (Jane Seymour), and of course the resident Mr. Darcy actor, Mr. Nobley (JJ Feild).
The issues with “Austenland” aren’t apparent from the very beginning. At first, it starts off sweet enough, and there are good ideas at play here. But as the storyline progresses, the problems become glaringly obvious: this is a prime example of a great storyline with a script that chooses to trivialize it rather than explore it. From the moment that Jane arrives at Austenland, she’s treated poorly. She’s one of three women staying for the week, and is told by Mrs. Wattlesworth that she purchased the cheap package, and therefore will be missing out on much the resort has to offer. She’s given a less-than-desirable name (Miss Erstwhile), unattractive dresses, and a closet-sized room in the servant’s wing. She’s even introduced to everyone as “an orphan of no fortune.” (It’s a clear nod to the social classes of the time period, but could a resort with only three guests really afford to treat their patrons in such a hideous manner?) She butts heads with Mr. Nobley (what a surprise!), but soon finds herself forming an unlikely romance with the handsome groundskeeper, Martin (Bret McKenzie).
And all that is well and fine on paper -- except what plays out before us is a movie that’s deficient in everything that makes Austen’s novels so wonderful; this is a movie that is devoid of any real spirit. It has its moments where it works as a whimsy diversion, but any opportunity to give the story substance is sidestepped in favor of cliches and pointless plot developments.
The humor, likewise, misses the mark. Severely lacking in the wit of Austen’s prose, it constantly aims for cheap slapstick, as is best demonstrated by Jennifer Coolidge’s character. Playing the same role she’s always played, Coolidge's Elizabeth Charming is tacky and obnoxious -- she constantly speaks in a phony Cockney accent and says inappropriate things (after all, she’s only there because she thinks she’ll “look great in those wench gowns.”) It’s funny for about 20 minutes before it feels decidedly stale.
As a means to try and combat this, the script tries painstakingly hard to force in parallels to Austen’s most famous book, “Pride and Prejudice.” But once again, its attempts fall flat. Our heroine lacks the spunk of Elizabeth Bennett, and Mr. Nobley is a poor man’s Mr. Darcy. We have a love triangle – but what good is a love triangle if neither prospect feels particularly agreeable by the movie’s end? Not to mention seasoned Austen fans will see the end “twist” coming long before it’s revealed.
If you want a similar story, watch the charming British mini-series “Lost in Austen” instead.
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