AUSTENLAND is a film as charming, as sophisticated, and as cunning as any comedy (or tragedy) of manners concocted by the divine Jane Austen herself. Based on the novel of the same name by Shannon Hale, it cleanly dissects the conundrum of finding real love in a world saturated with pre-fab notions of what that should be, and goes about it in a satirical fashion that highlights the refined smarts at work.
The plucky heroine, as all good Austen heroines should be, is Jane (Kerri Russell), a thirty-something Austen fanatic who has created her own version of Regency England in her small apartment and humdrum life. No piker when it comes to her devotion to the authoress, she memorized the first three chapters of “Pride and Prejudice” before becoming a teenager, and Darcy, the romantic ideal of that book and subsequent adaptations, is hers, too, hence her bedroom being a shrine to him. Though her best friend thinks she is crazy, Jane she sinks her life’s savings into a vacation at the eponymous Austenland, a grand English estate and the world’s only immersive Austen experience, where costumed actors perform elaborate improv with costumed guests in period appropriate settings and activities. Jane hopes it will be a life-changing experience. The best friend hopes it will get Jane over her obsession and back to reality.
As she is transformed from modern romantic into the corseted and petticoated lady of a bygone age, the proprietress, Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour) explains that each guest is guaranteed a romance (with no touching) and a lavish formal ball to top off the experience. Jane is in heaven, though her least-expensive package entitles her to the role of impoverished orphan living on the sufferance of the lady of the manor, played with a starchy lack of charm by Mrs Wattlesbrook herself. The house is staffed by devastatingly handsome servants, each ready to flirt, plain and sad-eyed women, who are a marvel of self-effacement, and actors of varying attractiveness who take their roles to heart. Jane is also taken under the wing of Lizzie (Jennifer Coolidge), a rich, gauche, but good-hearted American who is clueless about Jane Austen, history, or England, but is eager to try out her ample figure in a “wench dress.”
Naturally Jane is immediately drawn to Mr. Nobley (JJ Feild), the “Darcy” of the group, with his taciturn ennui and erudite irony, but as the limitations of her package, and the increasingly bizarre behavior of the fellow guests begin to put a damper on her experience, she discovers Martin (Brett McKenzkie), the soulful stable boy to whom she pours out her heart and who is not afraid to break the no touching rule with a (mostly) chaste kiss or two. Which is not to say she is unmoved by the physical perfection of Captain East (Rickey Whittle), whose idea of gallantry in the face of spilled wine is to remove his shirt to wipe up the spill, and give the giggling ladies a welcome eyeful. What she makes of Amelia (Georgia King), the other female guest given to dashing in a hopping fashion in an attempt to reproduce Regency deportment, is written all over her astonished face, though she is far too polite to verbalize it.
The vivid characters of Hale’s novel are brought to startling life by director and co-screenwriter (with Hale) Jerusha Hess, whose previous work NAPOLEAN DYNAMITE, displays her love of the oddballs among us. Coolidge’s is the showier role, unbridled enthusiasm, bold non-sequitors, and put-on accents that traverse the globe without ever settling on one in particular, but there is an odd sort of native intelligence also at work, even if there are a series of stuffed birds perched in her elaborate hairdos.
She is loud, she is kinetic, and she is the perfect blend of ridiculous and experience in her earnest pursuit of Colonel Andrews (James Callis a perfect giggling gherkin of a man) of distinctly dubious orientation. She is the perfect foil to Kerry, with her bright-eyed wonder and unexpected gravitas as Jane is suddenly overwhelmed by the charade and begins to question what feelings, if any, are real, grounding the film with genuine emotional stakes amid the hyperbole.
AUTENLAND keeps you guessing until the very end about that reality problem Jane has. It’s also delightful enough make you a little sad that it’s over when the time comes for the closing credits, which, blissfully, continue the story a little further.