When you think of Jane Austen, the typical image that immediately springs to mind is of dashing gents emerging from lakes in billowing white shirts. However, in Jerusha Hess’ Austenland (2013), the first-time director attempts to contemporise the queen of Georgian literature, blending Austen’s dry wit with a nerdish charm. The film follows the fortunes of Jane Hayes (Keri Russell), a thirtysomething obsessed with the eponymous Austen. In particular, she adores the writer’s best-loved novel, Pride and Prejudice, hoping to one day find her very own Mr. Darcy – especially after hearing about an Austen-themed retreat.
On a whim, Jane decides to throw caution to the wind and spends all of her savings on what is guaranteed to be a life-changing trip. Once there, the bullish Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour), lady of the picturesque stately home, drills her guests daily in a series of period-specific activities – ranging from archery to horse-riding – offering Jane and company the unique opportunity to bring their most bizarre fantasies to life, and even teasing the chance of finding true love. Sound a bit cheesy and kitsch? Well it is, but unabashedly so.
Austenland could so easily have been another daft drama which fails to realise quite how ridiculous it in fact is. Thankfully, it allows the outlandish nature of its central conceit to become a self-parody, transforming into a trite yet cuddlesome comedy. Hess is best-known as a screenwriter, with previous credits including Napoleon Dynamite (2004) and Nacho Libre (2006), giving you an idea of what you can expect from her directorial debut. Austenland plays all of the cards that we’ve seen her deal in the past, keeping the focus on character and humour. The mood is light, verging on the silly and always aiming towards mild levity, and there’s also a quite brilliant performance from Jennifer Coolidge as the hapless Ms. Charming.
It’s Flight of the Concords star Brett McKenzie, however, who undoubtedly offers the finest moments of comedy, his deadpan yet innocent approach to the role of love interest Martin – a man all too aware of the almost perverse nature of this strange getaway experience – paying dividends. Unfortunately for Austenland as a whole, the shoe-string plot does swiftly unravel as it draws towards its muddled conclusion. Melodrama is given priority over comedy as inconceivable (and uninteresting) romances blossom, destroying much of the questionable credibility of what has come before.
Couple this with an overly spiteful plot development and far, far too many endings (even for Austen) and the film’s high spirits and warm heart begin to wear heavily on your patience. Hess’ Austenland is good fun for what it’s worth, and it’s perfectly possibly that it will find an audience as an easily consumable date night movie. That said, even passing Austen fans should beware; this is unarguably literature-lite, and more likely to comes across as a patronising approach to the life’s work of one of Britain’s finest exports than a well-intentioned send-up.