Film Review: Austenland

A sprightly Keri Russell and bawdy Jennifer Coolidge turn Jane Austen on her ear, and spin her in her grave.

A few months ago, you might have scoffed at the premise of Austenland, adapted from what is referred to in some circles as “chick lit,” or maybe “chick lite”: that a young(ish) woman would take her life savings and spend it on a junket of sorts to temporarily live in the Regency world of Jane Austen. But now that the ever-popular Mr. Darcy is immortalized as a statue in Hyde Park’s Serpentine Lake, and there is much brouhaha in England about keeping a ring of Austen’s in the British Isles and out of the hands of a successful American bidder, it doesn’t seem so preposterous. And that’s not even considering “Janeites”: literary fans devoted to her work, even Austen’s life.

What might boggle the mind more, though, and even cause Austen herself to walk out of the film, is that this showcase for Keri Russell (FX’s “The Americans”)—while taking up the issues of perception so beautifully limned in the novel Pride and Prejudice and its many cinematic adaptations, and the topic of romantic self-indulgence Austen treated in Sense and Sensibility—disintegrates into farce, even buffoonery. Mine may indeed be a minority opinion, though, for the preview audience with which I saw Austenland was packed with women of a certain age, transfixed by heroine Jane Hayes’ adventure, and full of laughs at her misadventures.

Director Jerusha Hess’ film of Shannon Hale’s novel begins with a spoofy snippet of Jane (Russell) at a travel agency getting sold on the idea of the trip; when you see her bedroom filled with Austen paraphernalia and a stand-up cardboard cutout of Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy, you understand why she was such an easy mark. And as we learn a bit later in the film, she has had some romantic disappointments, so vicarious romantic fantasies and attachments are credible.

But when Jane lands on the “estate” in England, run by Mrs. Wattlesbrook (a sly turn by Jane Seymour), Austenland goes south to silly caricatures and sequences which look more like a parody of D.H. Lawrence on one hand (a romance with the “stableboy”) or debased Henry Fielding on the other (the clever comic Jennifer Coolidge as “Miss Elizabeth Charming,” a more monied tourist who pals around with Jane, is forced to deliver lines with a lot of “wink-wink” sexual innuendo).

Still, the conceit of role-playing in Austenland, with its hired actors toying with the visitors, is maintained, and in some ways Jane gets her money’s worth, though she can’t afford the top-tier program and gets a servant’s quarters-type bedroom. A romantic triangle emerges, and Jane has to try to pierce the veil of who is to be believed, which suitor is the most appropriate. This is an Austen topic, as is the pointed role of money and class in the film—maybe one reason it got rapidly picked up at the Sundance Film Festival.

Yet Austenland has the swagger of satire more than a comedy of manners. Austen could do déclassé and vulgar types (think the younger Bennet girls in Pride and Prejudice), but especially the communal drawing room scenes here go broadly wide of the mark. The movie should have been called ChristopherGuestland.