No sense and no sensibility: Jane Austen as uninspired rom-com
With Austenland, first-time director Jerusha Hess (one half of the husband/wife team that wrote Napoleon Dynamite) has turned Shannon Hale’s popular novel into a dippy, run-of-the mill, predictable romantic comedy. The novel’s fans may be the only audience for this dud, and even then their enjoyment no doubt will stem purely from the curiosity of seeing how the story translates to the screen. Everyone else would be better entertained by staying home and reading an actual Jane Austen novel.
As the film begins, in an odd, hurried exposition (Hess and Hale co-wrote the screenplay), we are told that Keri Russell’s American heroine, aptly named Jane, is a huge Jane Austen fan, as indicated by her gaudy, Regency-era decorated bedroom (replete with Mr. Darcy cardboard cut out), and a quick flashback sequence in which we see her rejecting various real-life boyfriends in favor of watching Pride and Prejudice over and over again. Once this salient (and, as far as we can tell, only) interest of Jane’s is established, the action can move forward as Jane fulfills a lifelong dream to spend a vacation in the British countryside at Austenland, a theme guest house similar in concept to Colonial Williamsburg in the U.S., only with fewer stockades, more corsets, and afternoon tea.
The manor is run by the prim Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour, appropriately campy), who makes sure that her guests (all single, lovelorn women, naturally) abide by the strict rules of foregoing all 21st century trappings. The Austenland experience, of course, includes actors hired to interact with the women as both servants, and, more importantly for Jane, as suitors. The holiday culminates with a grand ball, and each guest is promised a proper Austen ending to her vacation — a marriage proposal from one of the actor/suitors.
In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I have not read the book upon which the film was based, and which apparently has many devotees. My friend who attended the screening with me, however, did read the book, and vouched for the movie’s faithful adherence to most of the novel’s major plot points and characters. If you want to know whether the movie captured the book’s essence, then there you have it. If, though, like me, you aren’t familiar with the book at all, and just want to know if the movie is worth your hard-earned money and 97 minutes of your life, the answer is a resounding no.
Keri Russell sleepwalks through this movie seeming vaguely embarrassed, and with good reason; the story is essentially a one-note joke stretched thin, and the only suspense may come from guessing at the start just how many times you’ll wonder why you are sitting through such schlock. Why Russell took the role is beyond me; maybe her Grandma liked the book and asked Russell to do the film for book club bragging rights. You would never guess from Russell’s flat, lazy, phoned-in performance that she is the same capable, serious actress recently nominated for an Emmy for her complex work in FX’s The Americans.
At least Jennifer Coolidge, who can always be counted on for a laugh, and Georgia King (The New Normal) as Elizabeth and Amelia, the other Austenland guests, make more of an effort, bringing some much needed comic energy to the proceedings. King, in fact, nearly upstages the fearless Coolidge, imbuing Amelia with especially affected, goofy mannerisms and speech. Jane Seymour, too, appears to be having some fun as the stern, ridiculous matron of the place, hamming it up as a woman who takes herself and her entire enterprise much too seriously.
As for the suitors, J.J. Feild fares well enough as Henry, the Mr. Darcy clone of the group; he’s aloof yet perceptive, and does a nice job showcasing proper British reserve masking an undercurrent of warmth and sincerity. Bret McKenzie (Flight of the Conchords) as Martin, one of Austenland’s so-called servants, is just the right combination of hard working stable boy and sexy rogue. And James Callis as Col. Andrews, the suitor for whom Coolidge’s Elizabeth develops a fondness (to put it mildly) embraces his role as the reluctant object of her affection. Ricky Whittle, as the West Indian Captain East, steals the show as an egotistical soap opera actor who never misses an opportunity to rip off his shirt and display his chiseled physique, in one of the film’s only truly funny bits.
This film is the type that uses soundtrack music as shorthand for any meaningful screenwriting or acting; vintage songs like “Bette Davis Eyes” and “Heaven is a Place on Earth” play over various montages, letting us know what we are supposed to be feeling, and about whom. But perhaps the most anachronistic thing in the entire film is the brick-and-mortar travel agency Jane visits to book her trip to England. Maybe since Jane spends all her money on Jane Austen memorabilia, she can’t afford a computer? Not only is there more than one employee working at this establishment, but there are even other customers waiting for assistance. Now there’s a true time warp fantasy: full-time employed travel agents.
Austenland opens in Bay Area theaters today.