Ladies of Austenland

Austenland, a film by Jerusha Hess and based on the novel by Shannon Hale, is a satire of Jane Austen pop films while at the same time being a Jane Austen pop film.  With a cast studded with comedic actors and a writer from Napoleon Dynamite, it sets itself up as an epic comedy.

It’s no coincidence that the leading lady (Keri Russell) is named Jane: She’s a modern-day woman out of her element and head-over-heels in love with Jane Austen and all of her stories.  She’s never found the right man because she’s never been in touch with reality or herself.  Finally, after having enough of her drab life, she decides to cash out on her life’s savings and go on an all-expenses paid trip to England’s Austenland resort, where every woman is entitled to one love story, period-appropriate garb, and a room at the Austenland Estate where modern technology is forbidden.

At the airport

Keri Russell plays Austenland’s lost heroine with an earnest air and a sassy tongue, bringing the would-be clueless Jane a little closer to Earth and making her the perfect Austen heroine.  Her over-the-top apartment and excitement lend themselves to the comedy of the film, and really do hit their mark quite superbly.

Jane's strut

The set designer must have had a hell of a fun time on this movie with Jane’s apartment complete with her life-size Colin Firth Mr. Darcy cardboard cutout, her extensive teacup and teapot collection, and (my favorite) the words “Darcy was here” above her bed.

Once in England, the main characters are finally introduced, including a fellow guest Miss Elizabeth Charming (Jennifer Coolidge), the lowly servant Martin (Bret McKenzie), and the would-be Darcy Mr. Henry Nobley  (JJ Field).  Jennifer Coolidge is at her best and one of the main sources of laughter.  She plays a wealthy, stupid, and incredibly good-hearted woman; once she meets Jane, they become fast friends.

Coolidge’s Charming is a randy woman who has also come to Austenland to find her storybook romance (and romp).  (As a fun aside, she is paired with Colonel Andrews played by James Callis, who plays Bridgett Jones’s gay friend in Bridget Jones’s Diary.)

Her constant misquotes and over-accenting everything is hilarious.  Her lines are mostly made up of over-played and not completely accurate “British” phrases, such as “Tallyho! A hunting we will go!”

Miss Charming’s familiarity with Jane Austen’s stories clearly comes only through the popularized films.  She has never read one of Austen’s books and is clearly representing a good portion of Americans who claim to love stories based on filmic representation without really knowing the history or literature behind this “love.”

Martin (whom most people will recognize from “The Flight of the Conchords”) is a love interest – albeit an unsuspecting one. The fact that he plays the bad boy type is rather humorous in itself, but it works.

Love triangle

Opposite Martin in the quest for Jane’s affection is Mr. Nobley (his name is so clever and so very close to Emma’s Mr. Knightley).  His character is tricky to figure out: Is he prideful, is he just shy, or does he just not want to be at Austenland?  Whatever reason brings him here, it’s clear he takes a liking to Jane from the start; it’s also clear that he’s just really, really cute.

Jane becomes caught between Martin and Nobley, just as she’s caught between what is real and what is fiction (both in her real life and at Austenland).  What’s so brilliant about the film is that it likewise becomes very hazy for the viewer whether Martin is an actor or if his feelings are legitimate.  Is Nobley playing his role as the leading man or does he really love Jane?

This love triangle that plays with the plot’s reality makes the script shine, makes the movie fun and interesting, and pays homage to a true Jane Austen plot.

What’s made Jane Austen’s work so special is her social comments and satire on her own time.  Therefore it’s only fitting that this film does so as well – poking fun at America’s love for Hollywood-endings and disconnect with reality.  And although I can’t say how it ends, I can say that the ending would make Jane Austen proud.

The modern and popular music that gets thrown in every once in a while adds comedic value while also helping to make more of a joke of itself.  And let’s just say that you should stay for the end credits.

As a whole, this clever film entertained tremendously and made me laugh out loud.  The actors all played their parts perfectly, whether leaning on sincerity and heart, or ridiculousness and bawdy slapstick with overdone Americanized British accents.

I whole-heartedly recommend this film.