Jerusha Hess, screenwriter of Napoleon Dynamite, which her brother Jared Hess directed, turns her to sights to the adaptation of Shannon Hale’s successful novel, Austenland for her directorial debut. If 2007’s The Jane Austen Book Club didn’t feel enough like a resolutely ridiculous enough caper to the insane Austen mania that’s had book clubs and perennial film adaptations going strong for several decades, Hess’ film confirms the disturbing social tendencies reinforced by these mob think Austen obsessions on display here. Instead of exploring some of the subtext of what’s really going on here though, Hess rides the film into broad romantic territory. While there’s certainly an audience for this corrosive reinforcement of gender norms, for those that have been clued in to the cruel crookery of what real love looks like in the real world versus the standard rom-com, this gratingly stapled together venture will surely exhaust those that prize progressive notions of femininity.
Jane Hayes (Keri Russell), like many, has had a considerable obsession with the novels of Jane Austen her entire life. Now in her thirties and still desperately searching for her own Mr. Darcy, Jane has decided to spend her entire savings to be a part of “Austenland,” an immersive resort in England run by the imperious Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour). There, guests are promised the complete Jane Austen experience, with requisite romantic entanglement with one of the many hired actors peppering Mrs. Wattlesbrook’s (meager) cast. Arriving at the airport in costume, Jane finds another woman bound for the same destination, the garish Miss Elizabeth Charming (Jennifer Coolidge), who knows nothing of Austen but is obviously moneyed and thinks those “wench corsets” will suit her admirably.
Upon arriving at Austenland, Jane finds that Mrs. Wattlesbrook is rather cool towards her and it turns out the Jane, though she spent her entire savings, was only able to purchase the copper package, and thus is thrust into the servant quarters. Once settled in, she finds herself involved in a dual romance with the stable boy, Martin (Bret McKenzie) and the resident Mr. Darcy, the petulant Henry Nobley (JJ Field). But Jane soon finds herself in cruel situation, where she’s not entirely sure if everyone’s playacting as they should be.
Jane Austen was indeed a woman ahead of her times. She used demure tactics and hidden subtexts to create intelligent female characters, ones that were able to transcend their cruel societal trappings in a man’s world with their own intelligence and social prowess. If she were alive today, one would like to think she’d be horrified to see so many women, instead of focusing on a still much needed narrowing of gender bias in today’s world, still fantasizing about going back to “better times.”
While Russell is an endearing enough screen presence here, she’s surrounded by a terrifically atrocious script, which only devolves and never recovers from its stagnant attempts at comedy. It doesn’t help that, the usually effervescent scene stealing talents of squinty/breathy Jennifer Coolidge are obnoxious and horribly out of place here, her character a broadly crass object of ridicule which makes the performer come across like a live action Miss Piggy. But worse is how Austenland bangs us over the head with its archaic notions of love. Just when it seems our heroine discovers that what she ultimately seeks is something “real,” the movie cruelly jams her into the predictable clutches of a painfully sappy finale.
The main audience for this film may very well be upper middle class white women, themselves perhaps the victims of the cruel realities of men and love but also having the means to splurge on an archaic resort to experience the misogyny directed towards upper middle class white women in another era (and let’s not even talk about the exploitational use of Ricky Whittle, playing a “West Indies Captain” that makes a late appearance to woo the Austenland ladies). It’s no surprise, then, that this is produced by Stephanie Myers, an individual that seems happy with selling women unreal versions of what life, love, and romance should be. And Hess, who, knowing her audience, overuses many a famed 80s power ballad, including a terribly butchered cover of “Only You,” and “She’s Got Bette Davis Eyes,” which does a disservice to both Bette Davis and Kim Carnes, is only happy to profit from this sloppily assembled comedy that sure to tickle as many fancies as it is to only reaffirm how far we still need to come concerning how humans view notions of love and desire.
Reviewed on January 19 at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival – US DRAMATIC COMPETITION Programme.