Like Shannon Hale's cleverly conceived chick-lit novel, in which a diehard Janeite dreams of Regency Era courtship at an English literary theme park, this genial adaptation by "Napoleon Dynamite" co-writer Jerusha Hess lightly amuses.
Genial “Austenland” stars Keri Russell as a die-hard Janeite who hopes her real-world-incompatible dreams of Regency Era courtship will come true at the titular English literary theme park. Adaptation of young adult writer Shannon Hale’s cleverly conceived first grown-up chick-lit novel likewise lightly amuses, though those hoping for refined wit more in line with the original prose lioness’s creations may be taken aback by the generally broad humor here. Jerusha Hess’ directorial bow will thus require marketing finesse, but as one of this year’s most clearly commercial Sundance entries, the pic should attract buyers in various territories and formats.
Thirtysomething Jane Hayes (Russell) is introduced via a brief history of her romantic involvements, an uninspiring saga not helped by her distracting adoration of all things Austen — in particular the Mr. Darcy played by Colin Firth in that most beloved BBC “Pride and Prejudice” mini. (His lifesize cardboard cutout in her bedroom goes unappreciated by amorous boyfriends.) She decides to spend her savings on an expensive vacation at the role-play resort presided over by the imperious Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour), who promises each guest will experience “romance with one of the actors,” albeit of a strictly chaste early-19th-century British upper-class variety.
Upon arriving, however, Jane discovers she’s only purchased the “basic” package (rather than “platinum premium”). As a result, her temporary alter ego, Miss Erstwhile, is “an orphan of no fortune,” tolerated in polite society but at the bottom of the marriageable totem pole even in this “fully immersive” costume party. She quickly susses the Mr. Darcy equivalent, Mr. Nobley (JJ Feild), is intended to partner gibbering blonde “Amelia Heartwright” (Georgia King), while cheerfully vulgar Yank guest “Elizabeth Charming” (Jennifer Coolidge) is set up with the suspiciously camp Col. Andrews (James Callis).
So our heroine has little to do but tag along at group activities and gravitates instead toward off-script moments with stableboy Martin (Bret McKenzie), who seems equally disillusioned by the general charade but genuinely interested in her. However, Nobley’s slow-burning attentions create a triangle, and make it increasingly hard for Jane to distinguish between honest emotions and paid theatrical ones.
En route to a pat wish-fulfillment ending, the director (hitherto co-writer on husband Jared’s projects, including “Napoleon Dynamite”) and thesps do a good job maintaining that ambiguity. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Feild gives first-class Darcy under any character name. But nearly everything else here is pretty blunt, from Miss Charming’s galumphing malapropisms (Coolidge is fun as usual but has certainly had better material) to the arrival of a bodice-ripper-type Queen’s Navy stud (perpetually abs-baring Ricky Whittle) and a particularly juvenile debacle of an al fresco stage performance.
Thus, “Austenland” doesn’t really satirize Austen’s world (or fans) so much as use them as a pretext for a mixture of middling burlesque and routine romantic comedy. That it remains watchable is a testament to brisk pacing, a game cast, numerous throwaway chuckles (the intended big laughs tend to miss), a good-natured air and nice visual packaging. Production values present just the right attractive yet slightly garish, pandering vision of the past you’d get if a Regency estate were designed by Laura Ashley.
Mr. Henry Nobley - JJ Feild
Martin - Bret McKenzie
Miss Elizabeth Charming - Jennifer Coolidge
Col. Andrews - James Callis
Lady Amelia Heartwright - Georgia King
Mr. Wattlesbrook - Rupert Vansittart
Cap. George East - Ricky Whittle
Mrs. Wattlesbrook - Jane Seymour