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Film Review: Austenland

Austenland (2013; Directed by Jerusha Hess)

Everybody knows by now that Jane Austen’s novels are the Book of Genesis of the romantic comedy movie genre. There’s a whole lot more to her work, of course. I could ask you to step into a third-year English Lit lecture room to hear all about how the Regency-era novelist wrote masterfully witty prose full of acerbic commentary on social habits and mores and penetrating observations on human nature. I could go on about how Jane Austen is a satirist, and one of most important novelists in the English language. An artist of the highest order! She’s not just an early 1800s spinster Nora Ephron, people! Please stop looking at Colin Firth’s smoulder and listen to what I’m saying!

Many Austen fans know all of this, but many more seem to skew towards the “perfect romance” side of her appeal (even if her romances are anything but perfect, and often run towards the pragmatic). I bristle at the phrase “chick flick”, and not just as a cisgendered male; plenty of women find the conventional romantic comedy construction to be hokey and predictable, if not outright retrograde in its gender role assumptions and insidiously toxic in its psychological implications. Modern screen adaptations of Jane Austen novels often focus on historical details and don’t necessarily lean into the nostalgic meaning of “romance”, although the standard approach of removing Austen’s cutting narration in a visual medium cannot help but privilege the stories’ matchmaking sincerity over the author’s contextual ironism (although the better ones manage to preserve it, with visual wit or with imaginative time-period recontextualization).

But there has always been and always will be a portion of their female audiences who yearn for the polite, complexly mannered, prudishly rule-bound, and anachronistic portrait of courtship in Austen’s era as a “simpler” past ideal, a fantasy world of chivalrous, moral gentlemen and clever, sensible ladies from a rosier time before the fraught relationship politics of our age. To be entirely fair, contemporary women who must constantly tiptoe around anxieties of rape and violence and online dating and the multilayered pathological traps of toxic masculinity in their personal lives can’t really be blamed for fantasy-lusting after a figure like Pride & Prejudice‘s Mr. Darcy in their free time, even if this particular misapprehended prelapsarian male ideal is a rude and privileged snob who consistently negs the object of his eventual affection, who is of course the proxy figure for the reader/audience. The essential narrative structure of the Hollywood romantic comedy – woman and man meet cute, they get off on the wrong foot because she’s insecure and he’s a dickhole, but with further acquaintance their good qualities come to the fore and they fall in love and marry and live happily ever after – is after all also the narrative structure of Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, when reduced to the absolute, nuance-stripped barebones of the Elizabeth Bennett/Darcy plot and without the contrasting context of the novel’s other characters and relationships.

This is probably far too much over-intellectualized preamble for the relatively light and insubstantial movie that is ultimately under discussion, but all of it is important background context for Austenland. Based on Shannon Hale’s 2007 novel of the same name and co-written by Hale and director Jerusha Hess, Austenland is about a 30-something modern woman named Jane Hayes (Keri Russell) who got into Jane Austen’s writing (and of course the 1995 BBC Pride & Prejudice miniseries featuring the aforementioned Firth as Mr. Darcy, the focal point for many a similar fangirl mania) as an awkward teen and never really outgrew her obsession into adulthood, to the detriment of the health of her love life. Jane learns about an immersive Austen-themed resort at a country manor house in England, and pours her life savings into a dream trip to attend it, albeit at the lowest budget price point known as the “copper” package.

At the airport, Jane meets and quickly befriends a fellow American attendee, a wealthy, horny, bubbleheaded, big-talking blonde on the full-price “platinum” experience known only by her resort-only character name, Elizabeth Charming (if this character description does not immediately suggest the inimitable comic actress who plays her, Jennifer Coolidge, I have not done my job right). The two ladies are picked up by Kiwi chauffeur Martin (Bret McKenzie), and he and Jane hit it off with ironic batter before they even arrive at Austenland. Whisked brusquely through orientation by the snobbish resort operator Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour, whose real-life sister plays the maid who shadows her constantly), Jane proceeds to spend the week at a sumptuous historic house (actually West Wycombe Park in Buckinghamshire) in period garb and without modern amenities, alongside Miss Charming and another female guest (Georgia King), where they are pretend-romanced (with no touching, per strict Regency mores) during a series of aristocratic Regency activities by a trio of male actors playing upper-crust gentlemen: foppish Colonel Andrews (James Callis), West Indian beefcake (and former soap star) Captain George East (Ricky Whittle), and the sour, Darcy-esque Mr. Henry Nobley (JJ Feild, acting as Jude Law’s Non-Union Mid-Atlantic Equivalent but also making a surprisingly good Darcy proxy). Made somewhat uncomfortable by the whole charade in a way she didn’t anticipate, Jane becomes close with the seemingly down-to-earth Martin, another actor playing a servant, although Mr. Nobley begins to warm to her as well, setting up the inevitable last-act rom-com choice of lover (not a convention that we can lay entirely at the feet of Jane Austen, mind you).

There’s actually some wry cleverness to Hale’s construction of Austenland that serves as layered meta-commentary on Austen’s work (especially the hegemonic Pride & Prejudice), on Austenite pop culture and fandom, and on the counterproductive pretenses of courtship and relationships both in 1813 and in 2013. As mentioned, Jane’s romantic throughline with Nobley mirrors that of Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy, and, when contrasted with what appear to be more natural and off-book interactions with Martin, provide a fairly superficial but entirely consistent thematic exploration of the romantic minefield of fantasy vs. reality. Jane has been living an adolescent romantic fantasy, Austenland is at pains to make clear, and ironically her trip to the immersive Regency romance resort grounded in that fantasy is just what she needed to disillusion her and come to live in the real world. Perhaps there’s a buried implication in this dichotomy about the nature of the popular fantasy-romance profile of Austen adaptations and the more rounded and realistic social portraits of the original novels, but it’s left mostly buried. Hale and Hess are, however, skilled at maintaining relevant pretenses and then pulling them back in consequential succession in a manner that registers strongly as key steps in Jane’s character arc.

Russell is vital to making this progression work. Austenland premiered at Sundance a mere twelve days before The Americans aired its pilot episode in January 2013, and this movie is redolent of Russell’s Felicity-hangover career period of girl-next-door roles, before her lead role in the ambiguous and often harrowing FX spy drama shifted perceptions of her as an actress. She’s imperceptibly good at making Jane likable and relatable but never annoying or precious, but it’s clear that she’s straining at the bit for something more worthy of her talents as well. Perhaps her director can relate: Jerusha Hess was, with her co-directing husband Jared, once a hot commodity in semi-indie American comedy, after their quirky micro-budget deadpan comedy Napoleon Dynamite became a sleeper hit in 2004 and its modestly-budgeted Jack Black-fronted luchadore follow-up Nacho Libre just missed out on $100 million in box office grosses. But then came the deeply weird and audience-befuddling Gentlemen Broncos and the Hesses became direct-to-video mainstays, which was possibly always a predictable result for squeaky-clean Mormon filmmakers working in a genre usually pitched at sarcastic and ribald young-adult male stoners.

Hess is absolutely a talented filmmaker (I will defend Napoleon Dynamite‘s hilarity to anyone, anywhere, anytime), and the gentler content and conservative sexuality of period-piece costume romances (which Austenland technically isn’t, although it has the production values of one) is a decent conduit for those talents, channeled as they are by her religious ethics (her husband worked on a modern-day Mormonist version of Pride & Prejudice, which is wild to imagine but probably actually pretty dull in reality). Austenland is well-made, even if it failed to make back even its tiny $7.6 million budget at the box office (it was produced by Twilight author and fellow Latter-day Saint Stephenie Meyer, who can well afford to light a lot more money than that on fire). Jerusha Hess, as she did in her films with her husband, is fond of and very good at communicating comedic and character detail through cluttered, sight-gag-filled production design; although her production designer James Merifield has a specialty in British period dramas that serves Austenland well in parodically approximating the look of the BBC literary miniseries, Hess squeezes in her preferred aesthetic in the fanciful re-created drawing-room froofery of Jane’s apartment design (shelves with row-upon-row of decorative plates), the flimsy surface-level rusticness of Martin’s faux groundskeeper’s shack (he’s got a modern stereo system in the corner, covered with hay and playing sad-bastard indie rock), and the “backstage” shared relaxation poolside space of the resort’s off-duty actors, a mix of chintzy tropical and English tourist leftover decor, fake-tanned footmen, and a flat-screen TV airing Captain East’s ever-shirtless soaps episodes.

Austenland is often pretty funny, to a large extent because Coolidge’s natural improvisational tendencies (honed in Christopher Guest’s ensemble improv comedies like Best in Show and A Mighty Wind) are unleashed to frequently hilarious effect (complimented on her “beauteous skin”, Charming blurts out that it must be because “late at night when I’m all alone, I put my face in the fire!”). Hess apparently had no choice in the matter, as Coolidge was unable to learn the script and thus had to be set loose. McKenzie drops some deadpan jokes with skill (his Flight of the Conchords co-star Jemaine Clement was in Gentlemen Broncos and even more obscure later Hesses movies), King (a veteran of period dramas) has a couple of inspired kooky moments, and I chuckled at the broad stylings of Callis and Whittle once or twice, too.

Indeed, the comedic loopiness often overwhelms the story and character beats, as during late scenes of a theatrical and a grand ball. Indeed, the screenplay by Hale and Hess is maybe a bit too intricate a foundation in its layering of detail and thematic ideas to support the weight of the comic abandon that ensues. Austenland rushes into the freewheeling wackiness of many semi-improv, throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks American comedies, right down to its silly cast-singalong vignette over the end credits to Nelly’s goofy-sexy club jam “Hot in Herre”, which Jane played with comic anachronism at the resort’s piano in an earlier scene, as it was the only song she knows how to play (honestly, this semi-music-video is one of the best moments in the movie even if it’s not “in” the movie proper, especially with a clearly hungry-to-impress Russell vamping with her best Lip Sync Battle micro-performance).

But Austenland is constructed like a screenplay-first romantic comedy, albeit a modestly meta one, with a carefully laid-down structure. The incongruity between this nature and its improv-vintage comedic wildness is never quite resolved, and it leads to an uneven final product. This unevenness and insubstantiality extends to Austenland‘s subversion of romantic comedy tropes, which play out rather like slightly clever reproductions of them instead, as the movie fails to choose one path and walk it with confidence. It’s stuck between the more biting literary profile of Jane Austen’s work and the popular romantic-comedy legacy of it, and this little movie, silly and smart in phases but never entwining the two into a stronger fabric, isn’t about to tackle the resolution of that dichotomy and wouldn’t have much success if it dared to try. Austenland is a copper package visit, and it feels at times like it could have been platinum.

Categories: Film, Literature, Reviews
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