Austenland: A Review

Jane Hayes (Keri Russell), is a 30ish woman obsessed with Jane Austen. She doesn’t seem to have much else going on in her life–no boyfriend, dead-end cubicle job, a co-worker whose romantic advances would, if reported in the real world, result in possible litigation, unpleasant conversations with steely-eyed human resources folks and mandatory sensitivity training. Jane has come to see her Austen-fixation as a problem, as something she needs to move past and beyond, to which end, she decides to go on a kind of reality vacation.  She sees a TV ad for a place called Austenland, in which a feral looking Jane Seymour promises a genuine Regency experience. Which, by cleaning out her savings account, selling her Tercel, and (presumably) maxing out a credit card or two, plain Jane can just kind of barely afford.

So Austenland is two things: this Austen-experience reality resort, and the fictional movie of the same.  And the movie is great fun.  And I don’t know how significant any of this is, but the talent behind the camera is strongly LDS.  This might even be the next evolution in Mormon cinema–a smart, well-made, entertaining mainstream genre film, made by LDS people, but intended for a popular audience.  It’s produced by Stephenie Meyer, of Twilight fame, based on a novel by Shannon Hale (Princess Academy, the Books of Bayern), co-written by Hale and by Jerusha Hess (who co-wrote Napolean Dynamite), who also directed.  Anyway, yeah, it’s a rom-com, but an awfully well-made one–I had a blast.

So, back to Jane: she’s off to London, where she’s met at the airport by a ‘servant,’ Martin (Bret McKenzie), who sports that kind of Euro-sexy unshaven look.  It turns out that he’s the Austenland stable boy–cares for the horses, delivers foals, mucks out stalls.  Which means that Jane, once in full Regency mode, keeps sneaking off the reservation to make out with him. And he seems like a nice guy, genuinely cares for his horses, sings (badly) along to Muzak, while slow dancing with our heroine.

Quick aside: it’s hard to make the Austenland finances work in my head.  How much is this guy getting paid?  The film’s about one weekend, in which there seem to be just three paying guests.  It seems that Austenland offers differently priced experiences.  Jane is given the name ‘Jane Erstwhile’, and the persona of the impoverished, barely-tolerated cousin–her costume is bling-less and drab, her room is in the servants’ quarters.  Jane is on the ‘basic’ level package, whereas the other two guests have paid for the ‘platinum’ experience, in which they get to be, like, duchesses and wear prettier dresses and have way nicer rooms.  And the only way this works out for me is that the ‘platinum’ level Austenland experience must cost a ton.  I mean, you’ve got this huge mansion to maintain, plus all these actors-playing-servants, not to mention ‘actors-playing-aristocrats,’ which have to cost more.

But I liked it, the whole basic-level/platinum-level dynamic. It’s actually about the most Regency-accurate thing in the whole concept.  I mean, one defining characteristic of the Regency era (or British society ever), is the importance of class, of social difference.  Jane Austen’s novels are acutely aware of class, of the subtle gradations of privilege. She was a keen observer of it, of how all women in gentle society were not even remotely equal.  Jane gets ‘basic-level’ service, and plays a suitably Austen-accurate character.  It works.

Anyway, so visiting Austenland this one weekend is plain basic-level Jane, and two platinum-level guests.  One is given the sobriquet Lady Amelia Heartwright (Georgia King), and she’s blonde and gorgeous and has the whole Regency dialect and look down, except that she overdoes everything so preposterously she’s a comic delight.  T’other rich guest is even funnier: called Miss Elizabeth Charming, she’s played by none other than Jennifer Coolidge, doing her whole Jennifer Coolidge Christopher-Guest-mockumentary schtick. She’s an aging blonde cutie-pie, blowsy and kind-hearted and terminally dumb.

So the movie is about the interactions of Jane with, basically, three Austenland worlds.  First, it’s about the relationship she builds with the two other guests, all enjoying a faux-Regency experience, which tends to mean women sitting together (in the sitting room, duh), working on needle-point.  Or, second, interacting with the actors hired to play male Regency aristocrats, especially ‘Colonel Andrews’ (James Callis), who sports the plummiest accent, and is clearly destined to be matched up with Jennifer Coolidge/Miss Charming (too dim to catch that the actor playing him is actually gay), and Mr. Henry Nobley (JJ Feild), who is sort of sullen and distant and border-line rude: Mr. Darcy in the flesh.  A third nobleman, though, is ‘Captain George East’ (Ricky Whittle), a gorgeous soap opera actor who finds every possible excuse to take off his shirt.  It’s pretty clear that Jane Seymour has concocted a narrative in which Lady Amelia (the richest, youngest and prettiest of the three guests), will be tempted by Captain East, before falling for Mr. Nobley.  Jane, as the basic-level guest, is going to have to be satisfied with the stable boy.  Which she’s sort-of-kind-of okay with.

Except, except. She’s also sort of oddly attracted to Mr. Nobley.  And he to her.  And they have all these witty exchanges, Elizabeth Bennett/Mr. Darcy quick conversations, in which she’s revealed as smarter than he expects, he as kinder than she expects, and there are definitely sparks.

Here’s what I liked best about this movie.  Okay, it’s a rom-com.  Okay, Jane’s the protagonist, and she’s smart and a good person, but also sort of plain and average and unlucky in love.  We like her.  We root for her.  To find Troo Luv at the end of the movie.  And there are two romantic possibilities for her: Martin the stable-boy; Henry the Mr. Darcy.  A love triangle.  And Martin and Henry aren’t real, they’re both actors, playing roles.  So how seriously should she take their professed affection for her?  Is one of them sincere?  Would you believe it if he told you?  Could they both just be actors acting?  And until the very end of the movie, I truly, honestly did not know which guy she’d end up with.  So that’s a good thing, right?  Suspense?

I mean, Georgia King is a hoot in this. So is Callis and so is Shirtless Whittle.  And Jennifer Coolidge is, as always, brilliant.  The minor characters manage to be really really funny without detracting from the story that we care about, Jane and her forlorn hope for genuine real actual love. It works. If you want to see a thoroughly entertaining romantic comedy, go see Austenland.  You’ll have a ball.  I mean, Jane Austen books always end in a ball, right?

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