'Austenland' has sense of humor and literary sensibility
05:00 AM, Aug 15, 2013
Just how Austen-tatious can a hard-core Pride and Prejudice fan be?
That’s the geeky question posed by Austenland (* * ½ out of four; rated PG-13; opens Friday in select cities), a genial, low-key comedy set in a British vacation idyll where Jane Austen fanatics can live out their romantic fantasies. It features a likable cast, headed by the radiant Keri Russell, who plays the 30ish Jane Hayes.
Clearly, Jane stands out among the legions of devotees. She has treasured the writings of Austen for as long as she can remember, and her cozy apartment is outfitted with a life-size replica of Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy in the 1995 TV production of Pride and Prejudice.
But all this worship doesn’t go over well with potential suitors. So a friend persuades Jane to get all the mania out of her system by taking a pricey vacation to Austenland, set on the grounds of a Regency-era mansion in the countryside. It offers a week-long program that places the customer in an elaborate, theatrical Austen experience, complete with hunting expeditions on horseback, formal dinners, needlework sessions and a fancy ball.
Jane promises her pal that she will put away her extensive memorabilia and try to kick the habit once she returns. She heads off in costume, thrumming quietly with anticipation. Upon landing, she meets the wealthy, crude and far-less-Austen-savvy Elizabeth (Jennifer Coolidge), who bought the sumptuous “platinum” vacation package, while Jane scrimped just to afford the basic plan.
Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour), the one-note grande dame of the resort, consigns Jane to the servants’ quarters. She must wear a plain brown cotton dress and is assigned the role of a poor orphan taken in by the mansion’s kindly owners. Elizabeth dubbed “Miss Elizabeth Charming” gets a lavish room and elaborate costumes.
It’s not the world Jane imagined. But soon, she finds herself flirting with Martin (Bret McKenzie), a shy, handsome stable hand, and the trip improves. A barnyard birthing scene is one of the movie’s funniest moments.
Based on the novel of the same name by Shannon Hale, who co-wrote the script with first-time director Jerusha Hess, Austenland is spirited and gently witty. But its biggest asset is Russell, whose easy charm and down-to-earth Everywoman quality keeps us rooting for her.
In essence, this is a light parody of Austen’s novels, and fans will enjoy the subtle allusions and knowing winks.
In a Pride and Prejudice parallel, Jane takes a strong dislike to Mr. Henry Nobley (J.J. Feild), who conveys a familiar Darcy-like blend of reserve, diffidence and pride.
She and dumb but big-hearted Elizabeth become fast friends, though both characters’ back stories should have been better developed. Coolidge wrings laughs out of her character’s awkward attempts at a British accent and fumblings at needlepoint.
An empowering climactic twist leads to a rather predictable but satisfying romantic conclusion.
A humorous chick flick for well-read audiences, Austenland is a novel concept.