Film Review – Austenland
I’m just going to get straight to the point: Austenland is really funny and you should go see it. I had some worries beforehand, but about 30 seconds in, I realized I was entering a place I really wanted to be. Let me continue by addressing some of the questions I have seen around the Internets.
Q) I love Jane Austen. Does this movie make fun of her books?
A) Yes, but only in the most loving way. The film pokes fun at Austen fandom while at the same time being a form of Austen fandom.
Q) Who is Jane Austen?
A) Don’t worry about it. While the filmmakers assume some sort of English cultural literacy, they’ll fill you in and let you know who Mr. Darcy is. Austen fans will have an easier time of it, but there is plenty here for everyone.
Q) I really loved the book this movie is based on. Did they ruin it?
A) It is different, but I think the film is funnier. Also, writer Shannon Hale co-wrote the script with director Jerusha Hess, so most of the underlying structure of the book is present.
Q) I thought the book was meh. Is the movie any better?
A) For reals, the movie is waaaaaaaaaay funnier.
Q) Didn’t the writer of the Twilight novels produce this?
A) Yes, Stephenie Meyer produced this. She did a good job.
Q) I hear this is being marketed to only women/stars women/was created by women; is there anything here for the dudes?
A) The screening I went to was about 1/3 male and they seemed to be having a good time. I heard a couple of men afterwards talk about how much they liked it; I think this would make a great date movie. Also, there are a few very funny heaving bosoms if you are into that kind of thing.
Q) I am a man who really doesn’t like to watch woman-centered films and I am going to hate this no matter what.
A) Well, I can’t really help you. (And that’s not a question.) About 95% of what is in theaters right now is geared towards you; stop your whining.
Okay, let’s get down to the story. Jane Hayes (Keri Russell) is a nearly life-long fan of Jane Austen. And when I say “fan,” I mean “super crazy fangirl.” She’d rather watch the Colin Firth version of Pride and Prejudice than make out with her boyfriend, and her bedroom is decorated in what can only be called a Regency-styled love letter to Fitzwilliam Darcy. She’s fed up with her life and decides to take a holiday at a Jane Austen-themed live action role play manor house in England. When she gets there, having traveled across continents wearing the most gaudily inaccurate Regency dress in the world ever (a gift from a well-meaning friend), she discovers that she has purchased the budget package and will be excluded from some of the activities. Her fellow role players Elizabeth (Jennifer Coolidge)—a hilariously clueless American—and Amelia (Georgia King) serve as both companions and rivals for the attentions of the male actors paid to provide them with a historically accurate faux-romance. (Hopefully without the syphilis.) Jane finds herself with two possible beaux: forbidden groom Martin (Bret McKenzie) and the very Mr. Darcy-like Henry Nobley (JJ Feild). How Jane navigates the boundaries between what is real and what is performance is the meat of the story.
This is a great description of the book, and applies equally well to the movie, except for one fact. It does not at all describe how wonderfully silly, ridiculous, and fun the film is. It is directed by Jerusha Hess—one of the writers of Napoleon Dynamite—and she paints with a pretty broad brush. Much of the humor here is both physical and absurd. This is not a film peppered with genteel wit and amusing bon mots. Keri Russell, JJ Feild, and Bret McKenzie play it pretty straight, which grounds the audience and makes the romantic storyline more satisfying. Everyone else is batshit crazy funny and Jennifer Coolidge is perfect as an idiot with a tender heart. (I know she plays that role a lot, but it’s taken to a whole new level here.) James Callis deserves special praise as the foppish Colonel Andrews, but really, everybody is on their best form. JJ Feild is suitably dreamy as the Darcyish Nobley, Keri Russell is fresh and likeable, Jane Seymour is very funny as Mrs. Wattlesbrook—the woman who runs the place—and there is one scene where watching Georgia King enter and leave a room had the whole audience in giggles.
The humor here may be too broad for some Austen fans, and I personally did not care for the coda that ran during the credits. But I had such a good time while watching that any quibbles I have don’t really matter that much. A lot of lady Jane Austen lovers will enjoy this film, but so will a lot of other people. This is one of the most fun films I have seen in a long time, and I can’t wait to go back and see it again.