The elements of Austenland are terrific: It has a clever premise, is based on a successful novel, has Jerusha Hess (of Napoleon Dynamite) in the director’s chair, and stars cute, likeable Keri Russell and funny, dependable Jennifer Coolidge. It’s produced by Stephenie Meyer who, whatever you think of the Twilight novels, should at least know something about marketability. But somehow the parts don’t come together.
The film concerns thirtysomething Jane Hayes, obsessed with all things Jane Austen (in particular, with Colin Firth in the 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice miniseries; she keeps a life-size standee photo of Firth’s Mr. Darcy in her bedroom). Since dateable men are scarce and her “clock is ticking” (as an unkind ex-boyfriend reminds her), she decides to squander her savings on a week at “the world’s only immersive Austen experience.”
Austenland is an English country manor with a staff, or rather a cast, that, in addition to the usual cooks, gardeners, and chauffeurs, includes handsome young men of noble rank. The CEO of the enterprise acts as lady of the manor, Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour), promising that all guests “will experience romance with one of our actors.” (The proprieties prevail, though: “No touching beyond Regency-era social touching” is allowed.)
Over the course of the week, Jane notices that not one but two cast members appear to be sincerely romancing her: Martin the stableboy (Bret McKenzie) and the aloof, arrogant Darcy-substitute Henry Nobley (J. J. Feild). I have to hand it to ’em; I did not know how the plot was going to turn out till the end. This romantic comedy does a great job of creating and maintaining suspense. It’s the comedy that’s weak.
Much of the problem lies with the supporting role of Elizabeth Charming, played by Jennifer Coolidge. She’s a confusing mix of traits. Jane first meets her at the airport, as they wait for the chauffeur who will drive them to the estate. Jane gushes, “I memorized the first three chapters of Pride and Prejudice when I was 13,” and Elizabeth responds with a clueless smile, asking, “What’s that?”
Much of the humor depends on the wealthy Elizabeth having bought the “Elite Platinum” level package, while Jane paid for only the “Basic Copper” level experience. (Mrs. Wattleston introduces her as “Jane Erstwhile, an orphan of no fortune.”) When Jane decides she’s going to overlook her disappointments with the Austenland experience and make the best of the situation, Elizabeth says, “Good for you. Think of how many people hang themselves, and the next morning they feel better. But by then it’s too late.”
That would be a great line for Marilyn Monroe or Gracie Allen; its charm depends on clueless innocence. But Elizabeth is vulgar, grabbing one male character’s head and forcing it toward her bosom, and making inappropriate footsie contact with another character under the dinner table. Vulgarians can’t be innocent. They ought to be crafty and worldly-wise; Mae West is the classic example. This brings us to the main flaw in the movie: The Jane Austen setting is not material to the story, or even to the humor, but is only a backdrop; the main business here is very broad joking, often of a physical nature. Coolidge is good at that sort of thing, but her badly-defined character gives the story little help.
There are bright spots. Both Bret McKenzie and J. J. Feild do good work as Jane’s prospective sweethearts, and James Callis is great as the toothy, overly sincere colonel who would have been played by Terry Thomas in decades past. I loved Mrs. Wattlesbrook’s confidence in taxidermy as the perfect note for indoor and outdoor decoration (at one point we spot a wagonful rolling by, stiff legs pointing in all directions). The “hunting” scene, in which servants fling stuffed pheasants into the air for the gentry to explode with buckshot, was perfect. Mrs. Wattlesbrook also provides all the statuary with fig leaves.
But what is it about Austen’s time that holds such powerful attraction for women, particularly those still in the dating world? Jane says that she yearns for “civility, manners, grandeur, and simplicity.” A male character says that he seeks “a simple world where love is straightforward and lasting.”
Simplicity? The Regency era was anything but. “Civility” and “manners” followed a complicated code, and courting relationships were constrained and formal rather than “straightforward.” “Grandeur” has never been simple. But these desires express, I think, the anxiety felt by women who hate being appraised for their sexual attributes. They hate being evaluated for physical characteristics they share with virtually every other woman alive, attributes they did not choose and cannot change (without surgery, at least). Instead they want just one man who will know them as individuals and cherish them for a lifetime.
There’s a reason little two-year-old girls love the Disney princesses; you could even call it an evolutionary imperative. Women instinctively look for men who will cherish and honor them, and commit to them as individuals, because one day they will be mothers. Human babies are born much less developed than other mammals — comparatively, still at an embryo stage. Such babies require a great deal more care than baby lambs and kittens do, more than any single-parent cave-woman could provide. So a future mom looks for the man who will commit to her and her alone and stick around for the long haul.
Receiving that kind of honoring attention from a beau would feel “simple” and “straightforward,” as it would be addressed directly and personally to her — a refreshing change from being seen as the next in a series of interchangeable female bodies.
If you’d like to see a better takeoff of Pride and Prejudice, take a look at Lost in Austen, a 2008 British TV series about an Austen obsessive like Jane Hayes, who accidentally switches places with Elizabeth Bennet. Her foreknowledge of the story prompts her to try to make things better, and she ends up making things very much worse. It’s clever and very funny, and succeeds where Austenland fails. If, however, you want to see every production that has any bearing whatever on Jane Austen, you’ll need to check Austenland off your list. As the Basic Copper version, it’s amusing enough — but you’d hope that a movie with such great resources would have had more of a Platinum sheen.