On paper, a romantic comedy about Jane Austen’s novels and finding true love, produced by the author of Twilight and directed by a first timer Jerusha Hess, sounds like a recipe for absolute disaster. It has to be said that Austenland is muddled, over the top, simplistic and occasionally quite dull, but it somehow manages to wind up oddly sweet.”
The plot follows unlucky-in-love Keri Russell, a woman so fixated on Austen’s winsome Mr. Darcy that no “real” man could ever compare. At one point in the film, her character bemoans that “all the good men are fictional!” yet the viewer has to wonder what sane man would tolerate Jane’s levels of obsession. Her bedroom is plastered with photos of him; a life-size cardboard cut-out stands in her hall. Jane’s Austen obsession eventually leads her to Austenland, a regency-era style holiday resort that promises immersion in Austen’s world.
In Austenland, Jane finds passion, danger, and herself – amongst so many other things I couldn’t help wondering if Sharon Hale’s script was edited at all. The film suffers from an overlong, over-complicated story – Jane’s various suitors become less and less interesting until the viewer doesn’t give a damn who she ends up with. On top of the love story, we have a vague look at class divisions with Jane’s “copper package” leaving her clad in dull brown next to the richer guests’ jewels, a seemingly random plot to shut the place down, all while immersed in ritzy Regency era England. The period element of the film is by far the most enjoyable – the guests sew, hunt, dance and enter Austen’s nineteenth century world almost entirely. In this respect, the audience is swallowed up by the over the top carnival atmosphere, all pink and diamond. Over the top is clearly what Austenland is going for – it’s just unfortunate that it’s more sugar and less, well, sensibility. Her various men, played by JJ Fields (the cool, reserved Mr. Darcy type), Bret McKenzie (Flight of The Concords musician meets stable boy) and Henry Whittle (Pirate soap star) are amusing in their one-dimensionality for the first hour, but after that the love square gets duller and duller. The supporting cast are much better – Jennifer Coolidge performance may revolve around mocking British customs, but it’s still funny, and Georgia King is great as a totally OTT repeat guest at Austenland.
Austenland is ultimately quite a watchable, fun film, with a few laughs thrown in for good measure. It looks ridiculous, but in a good way – in the same vein as Baz Luhrmann, Hess has gone for intentional gaudiness and worked it. Jennifer Coolidge and JJ Fields provide some of the best performances, and the always decent Keri Russell centres the piece. What’s unfortunate, however, is that the plot just doesn’t match the pretty – a film about a literary hero should perhaps have worked out its story a little more clearly.