Opens Friday at International Village
Don’t let the prim stereotype fool you: Jane Austen fans are a cheeky and spendthrifty lot.
Austen devotees throw money at themed tours and partake in an annual masked ball in Bath. There are countless Internet groups devoted to Jane Austen fan fiction, as well as scores of sequels and Regency how-tos. In the instructional tome Dating Mr. Darcy, the author promises to “equip young women to gauge a guy’s Darcy Potential (DP) according to his relationships with family, friends, and God.” And there’s a Jane Austen Guide To Dating, which didn’t seem to work all that well for the authoress, now did it?
Not content with replaying that scene of Colin Firth emerging wet from the pond in the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, devotees seek out modern interpretations of the story. Bridget Jones’ Diary featured Firth again, as a modern-day Darcy (who dropped an f-bomb, egad!). Several P&P novel “sequels” tell the continuing story of the newly wedded Darcys, some in lurid detail. (Mr. Darcy Takes A Wife talks frequently and ardently of our hero’s “engorged lance.”)
Clearly, exactly 200 years after Pride and Prejudice was first published, Austen fans are still very big business.
Austenland stars Keri Russell as 30-something Jane Hayes, a woman nurturing an unhealthy obsession with Mr. Darcy. Her house is full of china pots and teacups, her bedroom features a life-sized cardboard cutout of Firth. Every man she meets fails to measure up.
She decides to spend her savings on an Austen-themed vacation in England, where staff and guests dress in the Regency period and sport impeccable manners, no cell phones allowed. Upon arrival Jane gets the hard sell from Mrs. Wattlesbrook (a comical Jane Seymour) but opts for the budget package, which means she is housed with the cleaning supplies in a dreary corner of the grand house.
Her desperate female companions include an American who calls herself Elizabeth Charming (Jennifer Coolidge), given to shouting “top of the morning” and “tally ho!” at inappropriate intervals, and Lady Amelia (Georgia King), a tour returnee.
All that remains is to see which of the actors will sweep Jane off her feet. She vacillates between the curt Mr. Henry Nobley (JJ Feild) and a down-to-earth gardener named Martin (Brett Mackenzie, of Flight of the Conchords fame), who keeps forgetting to stay in character.
Shannon Hale, responsible for the novel, also co-wrote the script. But the film is like a gelatin version of her book: you don’t even have to chew it before swallowing. The film is a trimmed down, more farcical version, which sees the women petting porcelain pugs and eating sheep’s eyeballs. And surely a true Austen fan could spot Martin’s Australian accent from a mile away?
Worse, director Jerusha Hess may alienate her target audience with the pathetic, sometimes pathological portrayal of Jane. In the book, Jane was more complex, and decidedly less like someone in need of medication. Russell, who despite valiant attempts will forever be known as Felicity (in the same way that Calista Flockhart is ever Ally McBeal) bravely mugs through the silliness, but her character fails to rein us in.
We could get into a lengthy discussion about the backlash against feminism and how some women seem to prefer the notion of corsets and idle hours to speed-dating and daycare, but let’s not. Austenland is a trifle, Regency-lite, destined to be overlooked by all but the most rapacious Austen fans.
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