Austenland is a somewhat sloppy, fairly goofy little movie that has been pretty unfairly dismissed by the bulk of the critical world — mostly, I think, because of a basic misunderstanding of what the film aims to be. The general opinion stems from the idea that Austenland is supposed to be a Jane Austen spoof — filled with all manner of clever references to Austen’s novels — and that is not, I think, the point of the film. Rather, this first directorial effort from Jerusha Hess — best known for co-writing husband Jared’s Napoleon Dynamite (2004) — seems aimed at the American-based Austen cult that has less to do with Austen’s work than with an obsession with Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy from the 1995 BBC mini-series Pride and Prejudice and Firth’s modern counterpart, Mark Darcy, in Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001)—with a possible nod to the indelicate tailoring of men’s trousers in the Regency era. (In fact, the film probably has more relation to Bridget Jones than to Austen.) Viewed in that regard, Hess’ little movie is a reasonably successful, entertaining and genial spoof — not satire — of that mania.
The film stars Keri Russell as Jane Hayes, as rabid a Darcy-phile as you could hope (or not) to meet, who decides to blow her life savings on a trip to Austenland — a tourist attraction in Great Britain that promises a total immersion in the world of Jane Austen. That the whole thing is an absurdity ought to be telegraphed by the fact that its proprietess, Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour), carries a taxidermied lamb around with her. But if you’re a romantic 30-something who’s increasingly desperate to find a Mr. Darcy of your own, I guess you overlook some things. It turns out that there’s more to overlook than a stuffed lamb — as the bargain-rate guest, Jane is shunted into the servants’ wing and generally looked down upon.On the other hand, the shamelessly vulgar—she makes no bones (shall we say?) about admiring the trousers—and excessively wealthy Miss Elizabeth Charming (Jennifer Coolidge) is shown every deference. (Her broad comedy also steals most scenes.)
What transpires is not exactly packed with surprises — and that includes the ending, even with its spoof of the race-to-the-airport business from Love Actually (2005) and its in-joke about Bret McKenzie’s role in The Hobbit (2012). There are some rough patches, but it mostly hits all the right notes. The middle section of the film sags to the point that you’re apt to wonder if the movie’s just wandering around aimlessly. When it rights itself, however, it does so with considerable élan and charm. The casting helps to no end, especially Russell and Coolidge, but note should be taken of JJ Feild as Austenland’s ersatz Mr. Darcy. In the end, of course, it’s all meant in good fun — even where the Darcy cultists are concerned. This is a movie that wants to parody that fantasy and realize it, too. Is that realistic? Well, no, of course it isn’t, but I’m not sure there’d be an audience for it any other way. Rated PG-13 for some suggestive content and innuendo.
Playing at Flat Rock Cinema