04 September 2013

Filmbook: "Austenland" (2013)

I read Shannon Hale's AUSTENLAND some years ago after finding it on a free galley pile. Its premise -- a living-history amusement park for Jane Austen fanatics, and the crisis-having young woman who travels there -- seemed at once perfectly absurd and eminently plausible. I know those fanatics, even though I may not count myself among them. And the book argues quite conclusively that if there were such a place, it would not be the idyll that hardcore Jane fans dream of, but instead would be terrible because heroes do not exist and, prose aside, women's lives in the Regency era were not that fun. If you were lucky (i.e. upper-class), you were just bored sitting in parlors all day. That's your best case. Shudder. Still, I found the narrator of AUSTENLAND alternately whiny and naive as she reaches that conclusion.

The movie adaptation of "Austenland," which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this year, solves that unlikeability problem right at the top by casting Keri Russell, who cannot help but charm even when she's being despicable. Russell's character, whom I'll call Felicity for this review even though her script name is Jane Hayes, blows her entire savings on a week in Austenland, an experiential vacation package overseen by the flinty-eyed Dr. Quinn (ahem, Jane Seymour, who is in too many jewelry commercials and too few movies these days). During the day, she participates in Austen-era divertissements like horseback riding and croquet, accompanied by actors playing at Austenish gentlemen like Bridget Jones' Gay Friend Tom (James Callis) and Bret From "Flight Of The Conchords" (Bret McKenzie). Despite her cute anticipation, Felicity experiences a series of humiliations small and large at Austenland, from being lodged in the servants' quarters and given the backstory of a penniless orphan to being groped by Dr. Quinn's addled husband. Still, with her new friend Stifler's Mom (Jennifer Coolidge, see earlier note about not being in enough movies), Felicity schemes to cut loose and worry less that, as her best friend warned, her Austen addiction has ruined her for real life.

Most reviews I read of this movie before I saw it on Sunday dinged it for being too crass and inappropriate, and compared to the works of Jane Austen it definitely is. But on the whole I found it a smart, fun comedy that did a lot with a little material. Some of the subtle moments killed with my audience, like a running gag about Stifler's Mom's atrocious British accent (somewhere between the Croc Hunter and Bert in "Mary Poppins"), and the behind-the-scenes glimpses into the lives of the actors who, vain and cocky as they are, are paid to show Dr. Quinn's guests a romantic time at all costs. (This is another reason why a real-life Austenland would actually be terrible.) On the whole I found it much less crass than most other summer comedies and feel that a double standard is being applied to this movie because of its female-focused audience and subject matter.

Director Jerusha Hess was one of the mad minds between "Napoleon Dynamite" (#rememberthenoughties) and the same kind of wackiness is in evidence here, but turned down a lot. An essential dose of cynicism is slung over the whole enterprise, perhaps the book's most direct legacy, in the image of women who treasure a fictional existence so dearly they will pay to replicate it. If you think about it, that's pretty much what "Total Recall" is about too. For me, "Austenland" worked the balance between romantic comedy and exposure to a meaningless world. I left transported and delighted.

Filmbook verdict: You have my permission to skip directly to this movie.


nikki said...

This is one of those films that has always sounded about a hundred times more enjoyable than the novel upon which it's based. Thanks for writing this review -- I'd already made up my mind to see it at some point, but this clinches it. PS HOW do you not mention JJ Feild AT ALL

Ellen said...

I don't think I'd seen Feild in anything else, but I thought he was terrific! What have you seen him in that I should watch?