American 30something (Keri Russell) travels to Merrie Olde England so she can wear Regency gowns & pretend to live in a Jane Austen novel… if only for a week. Is this the female version of Fantasy Baseball Camp??? A cute idea badly bungled by director Jerusha Hess & co-screenwriter Shannon Hale who refuse to populate the screen with characters interesting enough to engage any sympathy (JLH: 2/5). Click HERE for our FF2 Haiku. NOT YET SEEN BY RICH.
Well, damn! As soon as I read about this film, I was really, really eager to see it. I am a big Jane Austen fan. I think Pride & Prejudice is one of the most important, most influential novels ever written, and while I completely agree that Colin Firth was born to play “Fitzwilliam Darcy,” I have thoroughly enjoyed all the different adaptations I’ve seen (including Gurinder Chadha’s cheeky Bride & Prejudice which is set in contemporary India).
Furthermore, Keri Russell is a lovely actress who kept her balance in Adrienne Shelly’s film Waitress (meaning that the audience was never ground down by any of the genuinely horrific stuff happening just off camera), so I knew she was ideally suited—in both looks and temperament—to play an aspiring English Rose.
In other words, I entered the screening room hoping for the best… and left feeling totally let down. I think it was the budget. I think the producers just couldn’t raise enough money to do what they really wanted to do… But I’m getting ahead of myself…
Austenland is the story of an American woman in her early thirties named “Jane Hayes” (Keri Russell) who is obsessed with all things Austen, but most especially with the image of Colin Firth, who famously played “Mr. Darcy” in the 6-part 1995 BBC mini-series, and then riffed on his Mr. Darcy persona by playing “Mark Darcy” in the two Bridget Jones films Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001) and Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (2004).
Jane is an attractive, intelligent woman (d’uh, she’s played by Keri Russell), but she can’t commit to any romantic or professional relationships that come her way because they simply don’t measure up. Then she hears about a place called Austenland—a resort in England where she can stroll around the grounds wearing Regency gowns and pretend that she’s actually living in a Jane Austen novel.
And why not? Tourists flock to places like Williamsburg, Virginia where the guides wear period costumes and offer to lock them in the stock, and thousands of people participate in battlefield reenactments every year. These day guys even queue up for Fantasy Baseball Camp, where they pay $5K for the privilege of spending a week in their favorite jersey. An Austenland (if in fact there really was one) would tap into the very same yearnings.
(Digression: Of course I immediately looked to Google for an answer to this question, as others have done ever since Shannon Hale’s source novel was originally published in 2007. The answer appears to be no; I could find no real Austenland-equivalent that was currently taking reservations, and no reference to a real Austenland-equivalent that ever had.)
So I was totally ready to buy the premise, but then director Jerusha Hess—even with Shannon Hale as her co-writer—totally bungled it. The more I got to know Jane, the more sensible she appeared to be, and therefore the less likely she was to be someone who would spend her entire life savings on a trip to Fantasy Baseball… oops… Austenland.
Partly this was because none of the other inhabitants of Austenland had any substance as characters, but mostly because there simply weren’t enough of them. This is supposed to be a resort and therefore a business, and yet no business could survive on Austenland’s ratio of staff to guests. Some paid employees are playing guests while other employees are providing actual services (such as meals), and all of this is lavishly laid out for three paying customers: “Miss Elizabeth Charming” (Jennifer Coolidge), “Lady Amelia Heartwright” (Georgia King), and, of course, our Jane??? It’s utterly preposterous, and robbed me of my own fantasy (to be Jane’s friend and travel with her in my own imagination).
And so Austenland falls to the ground with a hard thud. Keri Russell’s talent and charm are wasted. The only survivor is Jane Seymour as the proprietress (“Mrs. Wattlesbrook”) whose radiant presence soars above a film mired in the muck below.
Top Photo: Keri Russell as “Jane Hayes.”
Bottom Photo: Jane’s girly-girl bedroom at home (before she takes up temporary residence in a room at the more “authentic” Austenland resort).
Photo Credits: Giles Keyte/Sony Pictures Classics