Screwball satire meets Regency–era romance. An uncertain juxtaposition perhaps, but in the hands of ideal-romance-crafter extraordinaire Stephenie Meyer, love wins - even though its form may vary.
Produced by Meyer and her production company and based on the novel by Shannon Hale (who co-wrote the screenplay with debut director Jerusha Hess), “Austenland” introduces us to charming single thirtysomething Jane Hayes (Keri Russell).
Jane’s love life is a shambles due to her obsession with the BBC “Pride & Prejudice” and all things Austen (and her apartment appearing decorated by a kitschy teenaged fangirl). Not only that, but every flesh and blood suitor is found sorely wanting, having been compared ruthlessly to Mr. Darcy as personified by Colin Firth. (Actually, who can blame her there, but onward.) When she comes into the knowledge of an immersive experience hosted by an Austen-themed resort, she makes all haste and boards the plane.
Disclosure: True Austen fans need to know I’m no expert on the subject; my favored romantic fare more resembles that of Aragorn and Arwen, and I’d sooner watch "Bridget Jones’ Diary" than “Pride & Prejudice.” Absolutely nothing against Austen, it’s just not my cup of tea, so to speak.
That said, I’ve seen enough of the productions to know my way around the elements and archetypes, and “Austenland” hits every mark with loving lampoonery. I caught "Persuasion" by happy chance earlier this week, and almost laughed out loud every time I spotted an activity, character profile, or turn of phrase (no offense to Sally Hawkins and company, they were excellent).
Unfortunately, however, in my view Jennifer Coolidge as another client was squandered. In taking “Austenland” to excess on many an occasion, the team exaggerated her usual “endearing ditz” into a moronic clown. Georgia King fared better, playing the third client; her character speaks fluent Regency, and when she adds her own emotive flair, the real King steals the scene.
Additionally, there was some awkwardness early on. Case in point: one element of the immersion experience produced a different result than either we or Jane would have expected, and the disparity was allowed to progress long enough that I began to wonder if they’d ever address it, even to the point of beginning to lose respect for Jane. Then suddenly it resolved, the story focused, and things improved from there.
Another such element was allowed to remain and was explained by the end, but by that time it flirted dangerously with being too little too late. Another accomplished British writer once said, “All’s well that ends well”; here it might be nice if were a bit more true, but it’s still true enough.
From a cursory glance at the novel, “Austenland” appears to strike just the right note of quirky comedy written in Austin-echo, and steps aside from the dramatic source material with delicacy; however, in being actualized with full-on oddball sensibility, one fears the step may be too wide for the true fan.
It’s a delicate undertaking to satirize the very group one seeks to woo; if they don’t know they’ve signed up for a bit of an affectionate roast, it could backfire mightily. I could be utterly misinformed on the matter (as I said, I’m not an Austen expert), but it would feel remiss not to mention it so as to give the audience a heads up. (Stuffed fowl could easily become a drinking game under certain circumstances.)
“Austenland” is, in fact, quite sharp and witty ~ to the point that its wit didn’t fully ripen until the next day; though I left the theater not quite sure what I’d seen and equally ambivalent as to how much I enjoyed it per se, I nevertheless found myself thinking of it fondly throughout the next day or two. Once past the aforementioned wide step (and wide it was), the jokes and structure began to reveal themselves favorably.
For example, late in the game there’s a comment about a taxidermist and a use of the word “grotesque,” both of which land with quiet hilarity in that they tie a perfect ribbon around things we’ve been thinking but no one anywhere has been acknowledging, or even does after they’ve been spoken (in true Regency-era tradition, perhaps).
I won’t spoil what those things refer to, but suffice to say that there is nary a single frame of “Austenland” that isn’t perfectly on point ~ to the point that if you’re thinking, “Wha'?” (and it happens rather frequently), just trust me that there’s a purpose and you’re not missing anything.
Don’t work too hard to figure out anything perhaps perplexing as you go along (this ain’t "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy"). We could debate whether or not it should have been allowed to be perplexing, but never mind that now. If “Austenland” interests you in the first place, it’ll interest you when you’re there. Just go with it and know that all is in order.
Then, when you see the order that all was in, you’ll be left with a wacky comedy that brings every bit of the romance that an Austen fan would dream of. Stephenie Meyer knows her audience, and she doesn’t disappoint.
Two fun bits:
- Keep your ears open for the joke involving “The Hobbit” (very late in the story). Then Google “figwit” and “lindir”. Hilarious…
- Also stars James Callis, who appeared as one of Bridget Jones' buddies, along with Colin Firth, who played (of course) Mr. Darcy
Story: Obsessed with “Pride & Prejudice” (and Colin Firth's Mr. Darcy in particular), a woman discovers an Austen-themed resort and makes all haste to immerse herself in the Regency-era world (and promised fantasy romance in particular).
Genre: Romance, Comedy
Starring: Keri Russell, Jennifer Coolidge, JJ Feild, Bret McKenzie, James Callis, Georgia King, Jane Seymour, Ricky Whittle
Directed by: Jerusha Hess
Running time: 97minutes
Official site: http://austenlandmovie.com/
Houston release date: August 30, 2013 at Sundance Cinema
Tickets: Check the Sundance web site, Fandango.com, or your local listings
Screened Aug 26th at the Landmark River Oaks theater in Houston TX