Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Austenland: A Review (Review #628)


I have never read the Shannon Hale novel on which Austenland is based.  I am not the person to which to judge how close the movie was to the book.  There IS an idea somewhere in the film's story, for a spoofing of the women who mistake Austen's literary figures who are smitten with the idea of Mr. Darcy (and Colin Firth's interpretation) that they soon substitute fantasy for reality.

As a side note, I suspect this is one of the reasons why, despite my best efforts, I am still unmarried.  Women prefer the fantasy of a Mr. Darcy, of an EDWARD CULLEN, of a Christian Grey, over the highly flawed but still living, breathing men around them.

There is also rich source material in turning an author's output into a theme park, a 'Fantasy Island' for the book club set.  Austenland, therefore, has at least a springboard from which to bounce from into being a great romantic comedy.  Unfortunately, it could never figure its way around being either a spoof or a more serious feature, which pushes it down (though not enough to be dreadful).

Jane Hayes (Keri Russell) has had a Pride & Prejudice obsession since high school.  Seeing Colin Firth emerge from the waters in the celebrated television version in particular is the height of eroticism for her.   So obsessed is she that her room is covered with "Darcy" all over, and the cut-out of Firth meets the wrath of one suitor who finds Jane would rather watch P & P (again) than make out with him.   Determined to live out her own Austen romance, she blows her life savings on a stay in Austenland, the vacation resort that takes one back to Regency Britain and lets our ladies (I don't know any men who stayed there) live out their chaste dreams (depending on what package they paid for).

Austenland is run by Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour), who runs the place with an iron hand underneath her velvet glove.  To give one the complete Regency experience, no modern conveniences are allowed.   Plain Jane can only afford the Copper Package, so her Austenite character is Miss Erstwhile, poor orphan relation with no resources.  However, the wealthy "Elizabeth Charming" (Jennifer Coolidge) can afford the Platinum Package, as does Lady Amelia Heartwright (Georgia King), so they get better quarters and more attention from Mrs. Wattlesbrook.  The men at Austenland are all actors: there is the shall we say, flamboyant Colonel Andrews (James Callis) and the aloof Henry Nobly (JJ Feild).  It upsets Jane that Miss Charming knows nothing of Jane Austen's work, though Charming, while boorish, is also genuinely kind to Jane and they soon become friends.

Jane is genuinely unhappy at Austenland until she finds Martin (Academy-Award winner Bret McKenzie*), a groundkeeper who appears to be the only real thing in this bizarre fantasy-world.  She soon starts falling for Martin, but it seems that either she can't fully let go of her Darcy fantasy or Mr. Nobly, in his stiff manner, is starting to fall for her in real life.  Not even the arrival of the hunky Captain East (Ricky Whittle) can shift her too far from Nobly.  Jane is determined to be her own heroine, and while she does take charge of herself she also finds that reality and fantasy can sometimes trick you into thinking one is the other.

In the end, we find that Jane has moved away from her Austen-inspired fantasies but she still finds herself a romantic hero.

Despite its best efforts, Austenland could never find what it wanted to be: spoof or sincere.  The comedy was so forced and obvious sometimes one had to wince at how predictable a lot of it was.  About the only time I actually laughed was when Mrs. Wattlesbrook made the guests and 'actors' perform a theatrical, a silly mythological romance.  Seeing this group of actors deliberately overact was the one bright spot in the film, but it left a lot of questions unanswered.

Why was one particular Austenland staff member so moved by Mrs. Wattlesbrook's latest piece?  Who were all these staff members caught lounging around or making out only to stop as soon as a guest wandered in?  The particular goings-on of the three guests (given that only Jane, Charming, and Heartwright were staying here, I imagine Austenland wasn't particularly popular or successful), my mind started wandering into another movie altogether. 

I would have liked to have seen Austenland, not from Jane's viewpoint, but from the staff's.  What they would have thought of all these genuinely crazy people behaving so strangely as they were unaware that people in Regency-era weren't all that different from people today save for what they could say or do.  We get little glints of that when Nobly, East, Andrews, and even Martin are in the staff pool, but by and large director Jerusha Hess (who co-wrote the script with Hale) appeared to want to make the people in their movie one-dimensional.

I think the performers were at least trying to elevate the material they were given, and I can't fault them for that.  Of particular note is Coolidge, who made her dim-but-kind Charming into someone both idiotic and endearing.  She may have been openly vulgar and clueless, but she was also someone who genuinely cared about Jane and was unaffected by the snobbery she found all over.  I think Russell, while a good actress (see The Americans) was miscast: she seems simply too smart to be a character somewhat divorced from reality.  Judging by Seymour's take on Wattlesbrook, one never knew whether she was either just a bitch or really trying for a completely realistic excursion to a bygone era or even a mixture of both.

Better were the men, who knew their parts and made them convincing.  Whittle was the somewhat dim actor who knew his body was his best feature and Callis the vaguely camp performer.  McKenzie (of whose music I am not a fan of) was convincing as Martin, who appears to genuinely love Jane, and in what can be described as a dual role, Feild was excellent as both Mr. Nobly AND the Mr. Darcy stand-in.

In short, the actors did their best to make the material work, and while their efforts should be commended, there was very little they could do to make Austenland little more than a tolerable albeit weak exercise in froth.

This doesn't do you justice...


*McKenzie won the Best Original Song Oscar for the crappiest of The Muppets songs (Man or Muppet), a song that won't be remembered five years from now. 

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