As theme parks go, Austenland is the rarified kind – it’s exclusively for women in love with Jane Austen’s novels, who want to spend a week or so living the Regency lifestyle while falling for a dashing actor playing a Mr. Darcy type.
As films go, “Austenland” has a cute-enough premise, but soon founders on the shoals of a weak screenplay, overwrought performances and somnolent direction. You’re better off reading “Pride and Prejudice,” then seeing one of the several movie and TV versions.
Director Jerusha Hess’ movie, based on a novel by Shannon Hale, stars Keri Russell as Jane Hayes, an emotionally stunted 30-something whose digs are a monument to Austen and all things Darcy. She carries an “I heart Darcy” bag, has “Darcy Was Here” displayed in large letters over her bed, and – well, you get the idea. So when she finds out about a fantasy vacation to Austenland, a theme park version of early 19th-century England, Jane jumps at the chance to live out her obsession.
Quicker than you can say “tight bodice,” Jane bonds with Elizabeth Charming, another Austenland guest (Jennifer Coolidge, loud and insufferable), and attracts the attention of Martin (Bret McKenzie), a workman, and Mr. Henry Nobley (JJ Feild), the actor equivalent of Mr. Darcy.
Jane thinks all this is super – the fancy dinners, the shooting parties, the attentions of two lusty men and the dress ball that ends the vacation. Plus, there are all sorts of colorful characters, like the archly funny Colonel Andrews (“Battlestar Galactica’s” James Callis) and gorgeous Captain George East, who is always looking for an opportunity to rip off his shirt and show his washboard abs.
This is all meant to be funny in a “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” sort of way, but trust me – hilarity does not ensue. Hess’ direction is plodding and undistinguished, and she has encouraged some of the actors – Coolidge and Callis being the worst offenders – to perform in a shrill style that is incredibly annoying. Field is fine as the Darcy stand-in, and Russell is an engaging lead, but the best part of the film is the first 10 minutes or so, when the main character’s Austen-mania is lovingly and cleverly detailed (a huge cardboard standup of Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy from the BBC production of “Pride and Prejudice” actually has one of the movie’s funniest moments).
“Austenland” tries hard. It really does. But it’s like watching a mediocre parody of a Jane Austen novel, without the emotional depth or social significance. Maybe it’s a female thing, this whole Mr.-Darcy-As-Perfect-Romantic-Humanoid. Maybe it’s not meant for guys to understand. Then again, maybe if “Austenland” were a better movie, it would be a perfect homage to a great writer’s sense, and yes, sensibility.
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