Full disclosure: in high school, I shared a locker with a friend who taped a large magazine cutout of Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy to the inside door. Every morning, he greeted us, eye level, and encouraged our inner Lizzie Bennett. I continued to feed my Jane Austen appetite and watched every new adaptation from ye olde England, but there were no lifesize cardboard cutouts, no collectible dolls, no cross stitched pillows, no sun bonnets. I grew into adulthood with cultivated literary taste and sanity intact.
So I tell myself. Austenland is my alternate reality biopic; it is also a regular romcom – girl, guy, another guy, a misunderstanding, and a make-up. But for Austen- and Anglophiles (such dirty words), the movie is a gentle ribbing of the world we inhabit, or imagine we could.
The title takes its name from the fictitious Regency era playground, “the world’s only immersive Austen experience.” It is run by the tightly corseted Mrs. Wattlesbrook (real-life Austen obsessive Jane Seymour), who enforces period rules with the severity of an English boarding school headmistress. Visitors pay handsomely to don petticoats and walking dresses and to spend idle hours stitching, sketching, and tapping the pianoforte.
Single thirtysomething heroine Jane Hayes (Keri Russell) sells her Tercel and blows her savings for the chance to play the lead in her own made-up Austen drama here. Except she splurges on the cheap copper package and is resigned to the servants’ quarters as an orphan of no name or means. Disillusioned but still enamored with the refinery of the estate in a way that Americans can be, she finds companionship in stablehand Martin (Bret McKenzie).
While Jane has an unhealthy attachment to all things Austen, she’s not completely unhinged. No more so than say those who make annual pilgrimages to cosplay conventions or who retreat to their sports themed mancaves. She has the giddy excitement of stepping into another world, one where “love is straightforward and everlasting.” She quickly learns that she is straddling reality and fantasy in a place where all guests are guaranteed a novel-worthy romance – with an actor. When love begin to bloom on set and she finds herself also attracted to the stoic, Darcy-esque Henry Nobley (Northanger Abbey alum JJ Feild), she understands she is not inhabiting an Austen novel. “What’s going to happen when the theatrical is over?” she asks.
The characters’ awareness of the artifice and their willingness to play along make this film fun and endearing for an Austen-loving audience. There is added enjoyment in watching some characters mimic romance cliches. Jane inevitably gets caught alone in a rainstorm, after her dud copper package horse refuses to move. Nobley gallops in, hoists her onto his stallion, tears her dress so she does not have to ride sidesaddle, and away they go. It sometimes happens.
The supporting cast also contributes mightily. Jennifer Coolidge puts her Christopher Guest mockumentary training to good use and adlibs most of her very funny lines. She is the crass but charitable American abroad who experiments with an atrocious Cockney and visits Austenland on a whim. Newcomer Georgia King is the unsung comedic hero though. She plays the part of someone playing her part with delightful earnest. This is a cast that looks like they’re having a good time. “The fantasy will not be as fulfilling as you imagine,” says Jane’s friend at the beginning of the movie. But this one comes close enough.
Prod: Stephenie Meyer, Gina Mingacci
Dir: Jerusha Hess
Writer: Jerusha Hess, Shannon Hale
Cast: Keri Russell, JJ Feild, Bret McKenzie, Jennifer Coolidge, James Callis, Jane Seymour, Georgia King, Ricky Whittle, Rupert Vansittart
Time: 96 min
Country: United States