By Dan Metcalf, Jr.
Clipper Film Correspondent
Austenland (Sony Pictures Classics)
Rated PG-13 for some suggestive content and innuendo.
Starring Keri Russell, JJ Feild, Jennifer Coolidge, Bret McKenzie, Georgia King, James Callis, Jane Seymour, Ricky Whittle.
Written by Jerusha Hess and Shannon Hale, based on the novel by Shannon Hale.
Directed by Jerusha Hess.
The Hess family hit it big in 2004 with the runaway success of Napoleon Dynamite. Since then, BYU alums Jared and Jerusha have experienced minimal highlights, such as the mild reception for Nacho Libre (2006) and the equally quirky (and ignored) Gentlemen Broncos (2009). Perhaps it was time for Jerusha to try her own project, so she adapted Salt Lake City resident and University of Utah alum Shannon Hale's novel Austenland for the big screen, without her husband.
Keri Russell plays Jane Hayes, a woman obsessed with Jane Austen, and more particularly the 1995 BBC mini-series production of Pride and Prejudice, starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle. Her obsession leads Jane to an exclusive resort in England, where women pay a hefty price for the Austen experience, complete with actors who fulfil all their “Regency Era” fantasies. Set on a large country estate, Austenland is run by firm grip of Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour), who demands that none of her actors break character, including the paying guests, who are given new names that are supposed to have a "British" flair. Jane is given the name “Miss Erstwhile” and shares her fantasy week with fellow paying guests Miss Elizabeth Charming (Jennifer Coolidge) and Lady Amelia Heartwright (Georgia King).
Jane is disappointed to discover that she spent her life savings for the basic fantasy, leaving her with drab clothing and small accommodations in the servant's quarters. Soon, her fantasy loses its luster, and she finds herself falling for a “stable boy” named Martin (Bret McKenzie), who likes to break Mrs. Wattlesbrook's rules. Meanwhile, the resident actor playing “Mr. Nobley,” (JJ Field) the role most associated with Mr. Darcy, begins to take an interest in Jane. Nobley appears to play his part well, seeming altogether bored with custom and indifferent to romance, despite his attraction to Jane.
As the Austenland vacation draws to an end, Jane finds herself manipulated and confused, barely able to distinguish between real love and fantasy.
Austenland has a few things going for it, like exposing the assumptions Americans have about England and the fantasy created by Austen. Keri Russell is a bright spot, creating a likeable lead character. Jennifer Coolidge also delivers plenty of laughs as a woman who really doesn't have a clue about Jane Austen, but dives into the fun. The rest of the cast performs well, despite a few characters who go a little over the top, while delving into some of that “Hess-like” quirkiness.
Austenland may not find the same success as Napoleon Dynamite, but it will appeal to a few American Austen fans. Perhaps the biggest flaw for Austenland is that despite its whimsical view of all things Austen, it's still a basic romantic comedy, complete with the predictable fairy-tale ending.