While Austenland may lack the originality of 500 Days of Summer, the film still entertains as only independent romantic comedies can. Formulaic enough so that audience members experience something of a pleasant familiarity, Austenland guards a sweet quirkiness. This pairing, purposeful predictability and welcomed wryness, make a visit to Austenland an enjoyable one.
Based on the book of the same name, Austenland premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. Being the leading indie film market, Sundance has become a label for a particular kind of film: the low-budget, star-studded sort. Austenland does not stray from this model, having been made for £5 million and starring Keri Russell of Felicity fame. Supporting cast includes Jennifer Coolidge and Jane Seymour.
The film itself follows Jane Hayes (Russell), an American woman obsessed with that man-of-men Mr. Darcy and with all things Jane Austen. This infatuation, once a charming adolescent hobby, continues into Jane’s adulthood. Now a 30-something, Jane has never had a steady relationship. Her job is of the unrewardingly tiresome variety. And after a colleague hits on and tells Jane that a woman her age cannot afford to be selective, she abandons the quotidian and books a trip to Austenland.
Austenland is to Mark Darcy what Disneyworld is to Mickey Mouse. Managed by Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Seymour), Austenland is a self-contained resort on a Georgian estate. Actors wear Regency costumes, as do all visitors. In fact, all appears to adhere to Austenian standards.
There is, however, a significant deviation. Women visit Austenland to fall in love. Mrs. Wattlesbrook even guarantees as much. At the start of her stay, a client receives a character name and story line. Every story line climaxes at the closing ball, where each client has her Elizabeth Bennet moment.
The love that Mrs. Wattlesbrook so tries to provide, however, is hardly the courtly kind. In delivering her business promise, Mrs. Wattlesbrook sexualizes her male employees, actors and house attendants. One suitor rarely has his shirt on, and every butler wears pants that accent his manhood rather favourably. Given as much, the film could have easily been sickeningly cute or disgustingly dirty. Instead, Austenland achieved something in between: cutely dirty. Jane’s own Austenland experience toes this line.
Upon arriving, Jane realises that there are Austenland package levels. While she has booked the least expensive, her fellow travellers have reserved the more expensive of the options. The differences between the packages, which provoke some laughter and surprisingly comment on class cleavages, do not humble Jane as intended. Elizabeth Charming (Coolidge) helps Jane experience as much as the others. And in the process, Jane becomes increasingly confident and content.
More self-assured than she has ever been, Jane continues to act as one would expect an Austen heroine to do. She defies Mrs. Wattlesbrook’s rules of decorum, speaking her mind as any aspiring Elizabeth Bennet would. She also entertains not one but two suitors. The plot centres on this point, as Mrs. Wattlesbrook had assigned only one suitor to Jane. The other truly cares for Jane and, after a climax in which he fights the competition, becomes her Mr. Darcy.
By now one has likely, and rightfully, drawn comparisons between this movie and other Austen-inspired efforts, including the ever-successful Bridget Jones’s Diary franchise. But whereas Bridget Jones represents the post-modern woman, aware of her own sexuality but willingly participatory in gender-normative behaviour, Jane is something different. Jane is even more idealistic and decidedly more prudent than Bridget Jones. Austenland does not, however, shroud its heroine in any sense of naïveté. The film casts chaste Jane in a sexually saturated environment, in which Jane finds humour, with which Jane re-evaluates herself, and from which Jane emerges with a relationship far more lovingly comfortable than either ideal or fantasy could have afforded.
Austenland may have its faults, comedic timing miscues among them. When the movie hits its mark, however, it does so better than nearly any other romantic comedy this year. Couples and singletons alike left the theatre smiling, and I suspect that nearly all left with a crush on Jane’s Darcy. For these reasons, getting lost in Austenland should be made a priority, especially for those among us who appreciate both the sentimental and self-aware.
Austenland opens 27 September 2013.