It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a film in possession of the title Austenland, must be in want of influence from Jane Austen’s literature. Apparently, director/writer Jerusha Hess and co-writer/author Shannon Hale missed that memo, leaving them with a lazy film that was, unsurprisingly, produced by author Stephenie Meyer of all people.
It’s not that Austenland has absolutely nothing to do with the writer’s work, it’s more that it doesn’t exactly understand it. Now, I’m not saying that people who devour BBC’s Pride & Prejudice and obsess over it aren’t fans of Austen. Much like Liz Lemon, I also worry that people might consider all my Colin Firth films erotica, but that does not mean kissing a cardboard cutout of him makes it believable that you’d spend a fortune to embark on an Austen-style “vacation” abroad. And that’s a big issue here. There’s little to nothing here to convince anyone that Jane Hayes (Keri Russell, who occasionally gets made-up as frumpy as possible) is anything more than a weird, sad caricature who doesn’t genuinely loves Austen further than fangirling over Firth’s Darcy.
So, Jane heads off to the titular Austenland, where “a true aficionado of Austen” can experience “the world’s only immersive Austen experience.” It’s a gorgeous place, with the costumes and production design being the top of the crop, but a pretty movie does not an interesting movie make. The writing of her entire time here, yet again, shows that Hale and Hess are only interested in mirroring the basic plot points and character interactions of Pride & Prejudice. If it were simply a play on the novel, it’d be an a-okay film to watch and enjoy, as there’s a self-aware fun there that makes for some entertaining moments.
If you hope to find salvation in the cast, sporting people like Jennifer Coolidge and Bret McKenzie who should have provided this film with some comedy gold, you’ll be even more disappointed. McKenzie would do better to stick with The Muppets and Flight of the Conchords partner Jemaine Clement if this is where his acting career is taking him, and as for Coolidge, well, it’s enough to make you cry. If her films with Christopher Guest are the top of her game, this is the bottom, left for dead as Miss Elizabeth Charming, the plus-sized, sex-obsessed, rich woman who doesn’t deserve the man of her dreams because, well, she’s a sex-obsessed plus-sized rich woman.
The strangest thing about Austenland is the way it wants to present sex, which could definitely be a big influence from Meyer’s behalf. We all know Twilight sees sex as a very big thing, so this prim and proper atmosphere of classic literature is seen as a place that shouldn’t be tarnished by sex. And yet, much to my pleasure, Jerusha Hess does show off the tanned, toned bodies of the men at Austenland plenty. The idea of having your choice of a ton of gentlemen from classic literature seems like an interesting joke to explore, and yet, the reversing of the harem trope that should have been is nowhere to be found. Instead, it’s all about reinforcing the notion of finding true love in the man who started off by ignoring you. Yawn.
While this film will try desperately to appeal to fangirls of every kind — even James Callis is around for any Battlestar Galactica fans, sadly playing an over the top gay man that makes characters in Baz Luhrmann films seem sensible — it fails on most counts of actually keeping the people it’s drawn in entertained. Austenland, something that has an entertaining concept with all sorts of possibilities on paper, proves to be an immense disappointment because of the fact that it could let down anyone who watches, be they a true Austen fan or simply someone looking for a frivolous watch.
Directed by Jerusha Hess; written by Jerusha Hess and Shannon Hale; based on the novel by Shannon Hale; starring Keri Russell, JJ Field, Bret McKenzie, Jennifer Coolidge, James Callis, Georgia King, and Jane Seymour; 97 minutes.