Directed by Jerusha Hess
Based on the novel by Shannon Hale
Austenland Film Review
A Sweeping love story, regency era costumes and sets, a worthy Austen-esque romantic hero with Mr. Darcy like moments, and scenes taken straight from a BBC Period Drama. Sounds good, right? Or, perhaps it sounds maybe a little too perfect? Austenland, while it does have all the elements listed above, is actually all about pretend and masquerade; a parody about women living out their Austen style fantasies in modern day; the film doing so with wit and charm.
The romance(s), Jane Austen appreciation, comedy, an unbelievably perfect cast with a little side of fun, make for a fulfilling list of ingredients in this unforgettable film.
Austenland, a memorable debut from Jerusha Hess (husband directed Napoleon Dynamite), invites us into the world of Jane Austen, Janeites, Period Drama, and old-fashioned romance in the way of what I call “CUTE SATIRE” (satirizing various situations and people while also embracing it/them with love). The film pokes fun at romantic comedies, Jane Austen novels, and most blatantly the women who love them, the women who can’t help but fall in love with Mr. Darcy and long for their own Austen romance complete with prejudices, balls, Willoughby like men full of allure, and handsome men in Regency costume a la Colin Firth that rescue you from the pouring rain on horseback.
But what makes Austenland even more appealing than the clever satire is that director Jerusha Hess never makes fun of what she is satirizing in a mean-spirited way. Instead, she embraces this world and respects it with a classy sense of humor. The romance(s), Jane Austen appreciation, comedy, an unbelievably perfect cast with a little side of fun, make for a fulfilling list of ingredients in this unforgettable film.
The story follows Jane (of course), a 30+ woman who is obsessed with Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy (something none of us relate to…). Jane, unlucky in love, is alone because the only guys interested in her no one would actually want to date, not to mention her Darcy obsession does tend to get in the way of real life. However, the guy at the beginning of the story reminded me of the Mr. Collins of the world who believe it’s a single woman’s duty to date them just because she isn’t married and the clock is ticking anyway. Therefore, Jane truly believes that fictional men are just better and really, who can blame her in this instance?
So what does Jane do to escape from her lonely life? She buys a trip to England to attend Austenland, a Jane Austen experience where women can pretend to live out their own Jane Austen novel, romance and all with even a ball to attend at the end of the week. But there’s a catch. She only has enough money for the copper package, gets introduced into ‘society’ as an orphan taken in by her rich friends, and often gets excluded from Premiere package events (such as having to ride outside of the carriage rather than in). It all seems to go downhill from there, although there are some rather tempting men around, and an attractive servant (played by Bret McKenzie) that promises Jane romance outside of the world of play-acting.
Besides the well-done satire (fabulously executed if you don’t take it too seriously or are just too stuffed up like Lady Catherine de Bourgh to appreciate the adorable silliness), the cast couldn’t have been better. First of all, is Keri Russell as Mr. Darcy obsessed Jane, the heroine of the tale. For all you Felicity fans out there (I am still upset she chose Ben over Noel), it’s refreshing to once again see Keri play a neurotic, awkward human being obsessed with a man (this time a fictional character rather than a high school crush).
She plays Jane to hilarious perfection with just the right amount of likeability that we can even believe not every man on the planet wasn’t falling at her feet prior to her attendance at Austenland. She’s believable every step of the way and sells the character and story with ease. Plus, she also has fantastic onscreen chemistry with her two leading men.
The two romantic leads: J.J. Feild as resident Mr. Darcy (Mr. Nobley) and Bret McKenzie as hired stable boy Martin are two of the finest leading men in a romantic comedy I have seen since Bridget Jones’ Diary, another film paying homage to Jane Austen with a modern-day Mr. Darcy (Colin Firth playing the part once more).
I can’t speak for anyone else, but I am exhausted and sick of all the chauvinistic, boorish, lazy potheads, and crude characters as the leading men in the modern-day romantic comedy (more like romance for men that several women also enjoy). Where are the Sleepless in Seattles? The While You Were Sleepings? Leading men like Tom Hanks or even as far back as the charismatic Cary Grant?
RELATED: Learn more about Austenland and watch the trailer Here
What is awesome about Austenland is that while it does satirize the romantic comedy, it also becomes a romantic comedy with leading men I can actually (and believably) root for. J.J. Feild, an inspired choice for our Mr. Darcy like character, has not only played an actual Jane Austen hero before (Mr. Tilney in the Gothic satire Northanger Abbey), but he also knows how to play the tightly wound hero with so much appeal that I was just as torn as Jane between the two men in the film. Feild even has the smoldering stare down to an art. Bret McKenzie as Martin is just as good. I’m not overly familiar with the actor but I am now and I hope more casting directors take notice. His onscreen presence almost stole the film for me.
The fellow members at Austenland were also scene stealers. Jennifer Coolidge (Elizabeth Charming) played practically the same part as her memorable role in Legally Blonde, throwing out dirty but somehow still laugh out loud funny one-liners, while Georgia King (from excellent period pieces such as Little Dorrit and the 2006 miniseries Jane Eyre) took on the role of the ridiculously over the top Lady Amelia with precision (her mean girl antics and strange sauntering from scene to scene was hysterical).
Even Jane Seymour couldn’t have been cast more brilliantly as the almost villainous Mrs. Wattlesbrook running Austenland. She got so into the role, playing a role within a role that her supposedly straightforward lines were delivered with irony and apt dryness. But the biggest scene stealer as side player award goes to James Callis (Gaius Baltar of Battlestar Galactica) due to his comedic timing and facial expressions that at times induced tears in my eyes. He plays one of the ‘actors’ at Austenland who must show interest in the crude and unladylike Miss Elizabeth Charming, despite his zero attraction for her. As a whole, every character was striking, none getting lost to the sidelines either.
The plot itself worked well because it was a straightforward romantic comedy told from a unique perspective. Overall, this is a film for women (though men can enjoy it too) that is made by women (Stephenie Meyer also produces it). If you are a Period film fan with love for Colin Firth, a lover of Jane Austen, someone who loves old-fashioned romantic comedies, and can look at the rich themes of what is real versus what isn’t rather than being caught up in what stale critics had to say (most having no understanding of this particular female audience or genre anyway), then you will leave the theater having a good time.
In fact, I plan on seeing this again and buying it once it comes out on DVD. So, do yourself a favor, look up the times in your area and when it becomes available (it’s limited release right now), and see it immediately. Support female filmmakers and stories that are starting to get lost to the wayside. Go and have a good time! Don’t take it too seriously. Oh, and don’t forget to stay for the credits…
Did you read the book this was based on? Have your own thoughts on the film? Sound off below…
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