DIRECTED BY Jerusha Hess
STARS Keri Russell, JJ Feild
Keri Russell and JJ Feild in Austenland (Photo: Sony Pictures Classics)
Even with all the inherent dangers, it's better for the average person to buy a ticket to Westworld or Jurassic Park rather than Austenland, an opulent if insincere fantasy resort that has trouble delivering on its promise of a happily-ever-after experience. The same logic can be applied to the motion pictures showcasing these theme parks, since those who pay the high ticket price to see Austenland will feel nothing but regret afterward.
Keri Russell stars as Jane Hayes, who's so obsessed with the works of Jane Austen that a "Darcy Was Here" banner hangs above her bed and a life-size stand-up of Pride and Prejudice's Colin Firth hangs out in her living room. Is her devotion unhealthy? It's tempting to say yes, but it would also be sexist, since men have long shown similar fanaticism in their decór of all things NFL, Star Wars, Tolkien, automotive, etc. and yet rarely get called out for it.
At any rate, Jane continues to feed her habit by booking a flight to the U.K. and staying at Austenland, a resort where everyone — hired actors and guests alike — is expected to dress, talk and behave like characters from an Austen novel. Jane's fellow guests during her stay are a blowsy, bubble-headed American (Jennifer Coolidge) who's only there to flirt with the performers and a refined Brit (Georgia King) who, as a return customer, already has the required routine (especially the catty behavior) down pat.
As the resort's haughty owner (Jane Seymour) explains, because Jane signed up for the cheapest package, she's not allowed to participate in all the activities. While this means she often feels like a third wheel when the other ladies are being pampered by the establishment's actors — the aloof Henry Nobley (J.J. Feild), the preening Colonel Andrews (James Callis) and the rugged Captain East (Ricky Whittle) — she does receive attention from Martin (Flight of the Conchords' Bret McKenzie), the hired hand who takes a break from his chores to woo her.
Writer-director Jerusha Hess, best known for penning Napoleon Dynamite, and co-scripter Shannon Hale, adapting her own novel, may have had the template for a piercing social satire — one that sharply plays up the differences between our modern world and Austen's — but they squander it in favor of a movie that rarely rises above the level of a formulaic rom-com. This is the sort of film where, yes, there's a mad dash to the airport by several characters, leading to a public admission of everyone's feelings (thankfully, the gawking extras weren't asked by Hess to break out in applause at any point during the various monologues). And aside from tossing around the name Mr. Darcy, the movie's appreciation and understanding of Austen's works seem tenuous: Given its broad strokes, the film (and resort) might as well have been named Alcottland or Shakespeareland or even Sparksland.
Coolidge and King are both funny and provide some comic bite, while the men playing the romantic suitors ably handle what little is required of them. As for Russell, she's game but corseted by the one-note nature of her role. Incidentally, how much of a fan of the veddy British Austen can Jane Hayes truly be if she can't tell an English accent from a New Zealand one? Since Kiwi actor McKenzie is playing the role, Martin speaks with a New Zealand accent, yet Jane admits that she thought he was British the whole time. Wouldn't this be the unlikely equivalent of an NFL fan yelling "Home run!" after his favorite team scored a touchdown?