Is it strange that I had high expectations for Austenland (2013)? Because I did. Perhaps I should have looked into it to see that it was written (with novelist Shannon Hale) and directed by Jerusha Hess, the writer of Napoleon Dynamite (2004), given her first shot for Austenland. Perhaps it’s the benefit of hindsight combined with not actually knowing the second thing about Sra. Hess, but it doesn’t seem as though she’s as much a fan of Jane Austen as, say, Simon Pegg is of Star Wars (1977). A devoted fan or admirer wants to honor the inspiration by loading up on the allusions as well as the formulas and themes. Where is the irony or closely knit banter in Austenland? Maybe they don’t have that in Utah. Instead, it would seem that Hess and Hale are, like the main character, taken by the romantic impression of Austen’s world without fully engaging with it.
Jane Hayes (Keri Russell) is a young girl-no a college student-no she works in an office and doesn’t have too much luck with the gentlemen in large part because of her preoccupation with Pride and Prejudice. [IMDb’s synopsis says it’s the BBC Adaptation, but she says she memorized the book at 13 which, at Russell’s age, would be 5 years before Colin Firth ever moistened himself in the pond.] Then she finds out about Austenland, a Jane Austen theme park, run by Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour), recreating the spirit and appearance of Regency era England. Spending her entire savings gets her the Copper Package such that she is to take on the role of an orphan of no prospects, called Ms. Erstwhile, while the two other ladies on the trip, of the Platinum Package, are minor royalty by the names Ms. Elizabeth Charming (Jennifer Coolidge) and Lady Amelia Heartwright (Georgia King). Everyone else works there, complete with actors in the roles of Col. Andrews (James Callis), Capt. George East (Ricky Whittle), and Mr. Henry Nobley (JJ Feild) that bear striking resemblances (in name if not in manner) to characters from Austen novels. There’s also a manual laborer, Martin (Bret McKenzie), who seems to have his eye on Jane from very early on.
The first five minutes of the film might never have been made to similar effect. It was possibly a sign of things to come whereby brief and unelucidating vignettes play out suggesting movement through time without any sense of character. She loves Jane Austen, yes, I see that from the bag she carries that reads “I [Heart] Mr. Darcy”, but might we see an actual breakup, a bit of role-play, an intensity of reading, something, anything, to suggest that she is a human being? Throughout the movie, the scenes play out, a gag is performed, but only rarely is there ever any consequence to it. There’s a common saying that every scene has to serve a purpose and, in Austenland, there are entire characters that don’t serve any purpose apart from a single function in the plot. I’m not sure that Jennifer Coolage’s character is anything but a figure of our ridicule. That would be comic relief if the character were comic or a relief. Instead, the comedy is so broad that I would chuckle but always wonder “She is so ridiculous.” I suppose that’s Napoleon Dynamite creeping in.
The cinematography (Larry Smith) is also problematic. The poster I chose suggests a glossy or at least emotionally saturated visual quality. That didn’t really happen. That may be because they couldn’t quite decide on their emotion. Were they going to be full-on camp, like Napoleon Dynamite, where the characters and setting were surreal, or was this going to be Clueless (1995) where only the characters were oddities, or were they going with Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001) and play for structure and theme? The latter, I would have really enjoyed, the second, I might have recommended, the first, who knows. All of those have a distinct look. I really don’t know how Larry Smith, who’s done a lot of dark indie movies, was picked for this light and breezy movie. Maybe it’s a fault of the editing, I don’t know, but it seemed as though it fell between the cracks of Napoleon Dynamite and Clueless in its visual sensibilities and came out like a TV movie.
I don’t think I would have been as disappointed as I was if they had completely missed the mark. If they had done a straight-surrealist, nonsense comedy about Jane Austen, it wouldn’t have worked, but I would have been able to ignore it without a thought. But they really had something to say about the relationships of men and women today in light of the romanticism we adore in Jane Austen novels. Hale and Hess blew the introduction by failing to establish a resonant character in Jane. How can you resonate with someone who gets three pictures, essentially, and in all of them basically looks like a wide-eyed cult member. Where they were really on to something is the Nobley character because by the end of the film he single-handedly establishes the only real conflict of the film.
Jane goes to this theme park looking for love even though it’s peopled by three women and a group of actors? That doesn’t even make sense. What would have made sense is if it was a theme park peopled with singles who all had a thing for Jane Austen novels and the Regency era–something only shared by Nobley and Jane. Coolidge’s character doesn’t know the first thing about Jane Austen and Georgia King’s character seems to know the roles but we don’t know how or why. At 97 minutes long, there is no reason why they couldn’t bulk up every one of those characters to develop their journey to Austenland. Every piece of characterization falls out of the blue, like Heartwright’s absent husband or Wattlesbrook’s playwrighting. What the hell is going on here? Why is Charming rich?
Alright, I’m stopping. I’m becoming legitimately upset. I read a sentence while I was searching for bits of information: “In the male-dominated hierarchy of Hollywood, it’s not often that three women — a director, a writer and a deep-pocketed producer — can team up and make their own movie.” Maybe it’s that kind of gender-loaded, reverse-feminism that made this movie as vague and poorly characterized as it is. That and a toddler’s sense of humor. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Where was that?