Review: Austenland (C)

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Almost two centuries after her death, Jane Austen has continued to inspire literary societiesvideo games, and numerous forms of fan-fiction, including Mr.Darcy-centered erotica (sorry, no link provided).

Pride & Prejudice alone seemingly gets a new adaptation every five years, and whose history includes an LDS version, a “Bollywood” version, and, naturally, Pride & Prejudice & Zombies (because, of course, doesn’t adding zombies make anything better?)

Latter-Day Saints read and admire Austen’s work as much as anyone, perhaps largely due to Austen’s brand of ‘chaste romances’ — stories of men and women falling in love that respect marriage and traditional gender roles, and don’t involve that scary (and sinful) S-E-X word that tends to pervade modern romances.

Austenland – which debuted at Sundance and was picked up for release soon after — presents a snapshot of Jane Austen’s rampant influence and modern fandom.  Austenland also represents the collaborative effort of three LDS women:  director Jerusha Hess (co-director of Napolean Dynamite), screenwriter Shannon Hale (based on her novel), and producer Stephanie Meyer of Twilight fame.

As Meyer herself has noted, “There can’t be many movies in the marketplace that are based on a novel by a woman, scripted by women, produced by women, directed by a woman and starring a woman. There are beginning to be more female-centric, female-created movies in the marketplace, but they’re still vastly the minority.”

That’s certainly true, and all parties deserve credit for attempting to fill an obvious gender gap in the movie industry.  However,  Austenland’s “women only” launch parties and marketing emphasis (a producer, on male viewers: “We just said, ‘Fine, it’s not for you. Don’t see it. Can’t come.’ “) have led to at least one feminist writer to note that treating movies from female filmmakers as “for women only” doesn’t exactly promote more female-made films.  (Good films, regardless of topic, appeal to both men and women.)

Well, producers: like it or not, I watched Austenland myself, Y-chromosome notwithstanding.  And my reaction?  Even with the caveat that I’m a guy who perhaps Just Doesn’t Understand, I’m not sure we have a winner here.  To my eyes, Austenland is a cream-puff-light romantic comedy that skimps on both the comedy and the romance.  More puzzling, Austenland seems completely disconnected from the work of Jane Austen herself.  A major missed opportunity.

Jane Hayes (Keri Russell) is a 30-something single woman who describes herself as “Jane Austen’s biggest fan”.  Her bedroom is decked out in 19th-century porcelain, along with a life-size cardboard figure of Mr. Darcy (in the form of 1995 Colin Firth).  When Jane hears about “Austenland”, an English vacation spot that promises “the premier Jane Austen experience” (romance included), she pours her life-savings into a trip in search of her own Mr. Darcy.   Austenland, run by the regal and proper Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour) offers period clothing, activities, and food, along with handsome men who happily dance and flirt with Jane and her fellow patrons.  But, of course, they’re just actors playing the part in a Jane Austen fantasy, not real romantic prospects, right?  Perhaps the handsome gardener who’s not part of the show is a better option?

Comedy is subjective but many of Austenland’s “jokes” (mostly from the seemingly mentally deranged “Miss Elizabeth Charming”, played by veteran comedy actress Jennifer Coolidge) literally don’t make any sense.  Granted, Austenland is from the co-director/co-writer of Napolean Dynamite which had its own ‘off-beat’ sense of humor that many found impenetrable.  But where ND was consistent in keeping a deadpan tone that didn’t care whether you laughed or not, Austenland makes the setup/punchline structure more obvious, and the comedic moments fall flat.

The logistics of Austenland (the place) are not explained well.  Why does Austenland appear to have only three paying patrons, yet dozens of paid servants and actors?  (Not exactly a sustainable business model…)  Nor does the film explain Jane’s motivations for attending.  Is she looking for real romance or fake romance as a role-playing fantasy?  (She dresses up in period costume even in the airport, like a ComicCon cosplayer, but then doesn’t show any interest in “role-playing” when she arrives.)  Is Austenland providing actual dating partners like a matchmaking service, or just actors who are pretending to be interested in the attendees?  (And is Jane expecting one over the other?)  The film doesn’t explain the primary conceit, and we’re left unclear for far too much of the running time.  (Jane says at one point, “I don’t know what’s real and what’s not.”  Neither do we.  Sometimes uncertainty can be thrilling in a movie — here it is just confusing.)  When Jane calls a friend at home and says she’s considering returning home early, we’re not sure what she was expecting in the first place.  It looks like she got exactly what she paid for.

I have not read Austenland the book (also written by Shannon Hale) so it’s likely the book does a better job of establishing Jane’s character and the purpose and organization of Austenland than the movie does.  However, I have read Jane Austen herself, and my biggest issue with Austenland is how disconnected it is with Jane Austen’s own work.

Pride & Prejudice — which Austenland basically pretends is Jane Austen’s only work — features a main heroine who lives in a restrictive society, but whose mind and spirit transcend it.  Elizabeth Bennet (as with most Austen heroines) is clever, witty, usually the smartest person in the room, and doesn’t define herself by finding a husband.  Jane Hayes has none of the above attributes, and willingly secludes herself in a fantasy world in search of a unrealistic romance.  Jane is the exact *opposite* of a Jane Austen heroine.  (Elizabeth Bennet, if she were alive in 2013, would NEVER willingly attend a place like Austenland.  Why spend time idealizing a restrictive society that she hates, when she could absorb the 21st century freedoms enjoyed by women of all classes and familial backgrounds?)  Jane — and by extension, the movie — looks for a modern version of the book Mr. Darcy, without creating the person whom the book Mr. Darcy would have fallen in love with in the first place.
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You could argue that the Jane Austen connection in Austenland is just window-dressing — a pasted-on theme to the standard romantic comedy template that was never intended to mirror a deeper connection to Austen’s themes and writing.  However, for Jane to proclaim herself “the biggest Jane Austen fan in the world”, yet NOT pattern her own life on a Jane Austen heroine (as if she genuinely thinks Elizabeth Bennet sat around by choice waiting for her future husband to show up and sweep her off her feet) demonstrates a remarkably blinded and narrow view of why Austen’s books are still read two centuries later.  As per the established formula, Jane finds the “perfect” guy in the end, although as a guy, I couldn’t tell you for the life of me what he finds attractive about Jane in the first place.

Perhaps turnabout is fair play.  Other movies commonly feature older, unattractive men illogically finding gorgeous young girlfriends, probably because that’s the fantasy of the older, unattractive, male movie executives who green-lit them to begin with.  Perhaps it’s justice that female filmmakers can now do the same thing, but as a guy I’m blocked out from appreciating the romance because the female protagonist is so bland.  The filmmakers have apparently internalized why women found Mr. Darcy attractive, but not why Elizabeth Bennet would be to men.

Jane Austen’s books were never just about romance, of course, but contained subtle commentary about money, social class, and gender roles.  (P&P makes it clear that Mrs. Bennet’s anxiety about her daughters marrying in good time is less because she believes women need husbands to be ‘complete’, but because their family financial situation is precarious enough that her daughters might literally be homeless if they don’t.)

Austenland hints that it understands the rigid class distinctions of Austen’s time:  Mrs. Wattlesbrook informs Jane upon arrival that she’s only purchased the “basic/copper” package and will be excluded from a number of “platinum level” activities.  Later, it appears there are only two men to service the three female attendees and Jane will be left out of male attention altogether.

It would have been a wickedly subversive plot twist for this to have been deliberate:  if Mrs. Wattlesbrook’s primary purpose in creating Austenland was to provide a burst of disillusionment to naive attendees, teaching them about 18th century social classes and what it was really like to be a woman in Austen’s time.  (In one scene, the three women talk about how much time they are spending sewing, with one remarking that this was exactly what women of the time would do.)

I’d love to give Austenland the benefit of the doubt that this was an intentional and subtle element of the “Austenland experience”.    However, when a third guy shows up (just “delayed”) and the film can’t find any dramatic (or even comedic) potential in the ‘copper/platinum’ distinction, we’re left with the realization that Austenland is content to be a shallow romance with any deeper connection to Austen’s themes purely coincidental.

It’s disappointing, because there was a lot of unrealized potential here, both as quality entertainment and a more focused look at what being a fan obsessed with Jane Austen would really entail.  Austenland may indeed be “for women only” as the producers claim, which would be ironic because Jane Austen herself isn’t.   Austen’s novels, like all great works of literature, transcend gender.  It’s good to see more female filmmakers (LDS or otherwise), but shouldn’t their films be judged the same way?

Final Grade: C