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REVIEW: Austenland

August 11, 2013

austenland_poster We have viewed the approach of the release of Austenland with very mixed feelings. On the good side, the trailer looked like fun, and Jennifer Coolidge is usually a riot. On the other side, we read the book by Shannon Hale quite a while ago and had a hard time remembering much about it, other than we felt that for a book allegedly about an obsessed Janeite, we did not find the protagonist sympathetic or even likable. At the time we snarked about the book on the blog (quel surprise) and were scolded by Halefen, so we put the book on our towering To Be Read pile (our TBR pile, both paper and electronic, can be seen from space) with the idea that we’d give it another try, eventually. With the film coming out, that time seemed to have come; and when an opportunity arose to see a preview of the film, it seemed even more pressing. We got through the prologue and part of the first chapter when we decided we had better stop reading until after seeing the movie.

We were hoping for better things from the movie, and were determined to go into the movie with an open mind. The cast looked pretty good, and the trailer made us smile. How bad could it be?

For those who haven’t read the book or kept up with the publicity (which is really quite extensive for a “small” film), the general plot is that the protagonist, Jane Hayes (Keri Russell), is obsessed with Pride and Prejudice–more P&P95 than the book, as far as we can tell, but at one point she volunteers that she memorized the first three chapters of the book when she was a teenager. Jane’s obsession with P&P seems to have affected her love life; she only attracts losers. Any “nice” men, we are shown, are turned off by her insistence on watching the pond scene rather than making out with them, and no doubt by the existence of a life-size Flat Darcy in her apartment. When a co-worker crudely hits on her in front of everyone, rather than report him to HR for sexual harassment, she spends her life savings on a trip to Austenland, where she will have an “immersive Regency experience” and live like a Jane Austen heroine–complete with costumes, a Regency ball, and romance with one of the establishment’s hired actors.

Stereotypes are to be expected, and we tick them off: tea-sipping? Jane not only sips tea, she decorated her apartment with an entire wall of teapots. A WALL OF TEAPOTS. Cat-stroking? No cats, except possibly some taxidermied critters, which is sort of a running gag; someone in the cast must have been allergic. Wet shirt fanatic? See above re: Life-size Flat Darcy, obsession with pond scene in movie, yada yada. Two out of three! Not bad!

Jane arrives at Austenland, and frankly for as expensive as it is supposed to be, it’s a pretty crappy Immersive Regency Experience from what we can tell. We would have been demanding our money back as soon as our ride picked us up at the airport in a Downton Abbey car. Downton Abbey car? Oh, wait, Edwardian is the new Victorian. Never mind.

At Austenland, we are introduced to the rest of the cast of characters: two other paying (female) guests and the (male) actors who will fulfill their Immersive Regency Experience fantasies. Jennifer Coolidge and Georgia King play Jane’s fellow guests, calling themselves Miss Elizabeth Charming and Lady Amelia Heartwright, both of whom have purchased the more expensive Platinum Package, so Jane is forced into the role of Miss Jane Erstwhile, Poor Relative, in this little playground. James Callis as Colonel Andrews, sporting lovely Victorian mustachios and a hilariously affected accent, is immediately pounced upon by Miss Charming, who has absolutely no familiarity with Jane Austen, to the point that one wonders why she is there, other than apparently being horny for men in breeches. JJ Feild, whose character is introduced as Henry Nobley (!), is aloof, uninterested, and clearly considers himself above his company. Sound familiar? Jane, who, remember, memorized the first three chapters of P&P at age 13 or whatever and carries an I Heart Darcy bag, should be charmed by this, no? (We were! We thought JJ got his Darcy on spectacularly well.) Surely Jane knows that P&P isn’t 61 chapters of Wet Shirt? That there is quite a bit of she is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me, every savage can dance, my good opinion once lost is lost forever, I might, perhaps, be informed why with so little endeavour at civility I am thus rejected before we get to dearest, loveliest Elizabeth? Shouldn’t Jane like some preliminary Cranky!Darcy, if she’s such a giant Darcy Hearter? We guess not, because she promptly throws herself at the stable boy (the very very cute Bret McKenzie). See above, re: throat punching.

Cue many farcical Immersive Regency Experience hijinx as Jane and Mr. Nobley argue, clash, and grow closer. Because we totally didn’t see that coming. Most of the hijinx include the women drooling lustfully over the very handsome actors hired to be their Immersive Regency Experience fantasies. This is played very much for laughs: look at those silly, desperate women, obsessed with breeches and too pathetic to get a man, and have to pay men in breeches to flirt with them so All Their Fantasies Come True! Being a fangirl in good standing, we could not help but wonder why the filmmakers consider the female gaze something worthy of mockery. It is especially funny that Bret McKenzie, whose appearances in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit were pretty much the result of fangirl fun online, is here as well. It’s unclear if the filmmakers are trying to say something there as well (especially since there is a crack about Bret’s character not getting a role in The Hobbit, and yet there he was. FIGWIT LIVES!) We have to stop thinking about it, because it’s been bugging us since we saw the movie. We are perfectly aware that there are women who lose their stuff around a Real Live Actor, but we hope that we and many of our friends, intelligent women all who express their fangirlism with extreme good humor and a firm grip on reality, would behave better–and, placed in an Immersive Regency Experience, would behave like ladies about whom Jane Austen herself would approve, rather than the Real Housewives of the Immersive Regency Experience.

Torn between her stable boy and her Nobley, er, noble swain, eventually Jane has an Epiphany, and realizes how WRONG! WRONG! she has been to be obsessed with this Jane Austen fantasy, and that she will leave Austenland, pack up her teapots (we are so not kidding about that) and have a Real Life! At which point it becomes abundantly clear why they hired JJ Feild to play a character named Henry Nobley. Because all of you silly Jane Austen obsessives are immature and ridiculous and should box up your teapots and your Flat Darcys and join the Real World. We’re not really sure how else to take this. The thing is, while Catherine Morland let her imagination get carried away, she wasn’t entirely wrong. She just wasn’t good at reading a situation she had never experienced–a dysfunctional family and an emotionally abusive father, and she jumped to some very wrong conclusions; but there really was some stuff going on. So while this could be taken as a sneaky rewrite of the end of Northanger Abbey, it comes off like a scolding of silly obsessed Austen fans. Considering this film was produced by the creator of Edward Sparklepony Cullen, who said of the book, “This is the best tribute to obsessed Austen freaks (like me) that I’ve ever read,” we’re pretty thoroughly confused at what the message is supposed to be, other than an inept attempt at a parody of Austen fans. To parody successfully, it would have been better done by someone with more familiarity with the Austen fandom. That’s true for pretty much anything, though.

It’s not all bad, not really. Parts of it, mostly involving Jennifer Coolidge and James Callis, are downright hilarious, in the same way that the Juvenilia is hilarious–over-the-top and farcical. Those two actors are having way too much fun and it would be curmudgeonly to not relax and enjoy it, and we are not as curmudgeonly as we like to pretend, really.

JJ Feild is absolutely adorable and deserves better than this. We also regret to report that his great coat had not one single cape on it. Seriously, what kind of weaksauce Immersive Regency Experience are these people running? The top boots were in evidence, though, and as shiny as one could hope.

We have long ago given up trying to predict what Janeites as a group will think of Austen-related things; besides, as we’ve often written on this blog, we are not that homogeneous a group. Dorothy tells us that there are even people who liked MP99, though it seems wonderful to us. We will not say, do not be uneasy do not go see Austenland, because we think those who are more willing to suspend their disbelief further than your tar-hearted uptight spinster &c. Editrix might enjoy it; we will also say, if it doesn’t make it to your town, do not be uneasy, for we suspect it will be out on DVD in time for the holidays.

18 Comments
  1. August 11, 2013 7:05 am

    (Hurt). As one who just bought two Sadler Copper Lusters while staying with Laurel Anni in the antiquing town of Snohomish, I don’t see anything *wrong* with a wall of teapots.

    Great review, glad I didn’t go.

    • August 11, 2013 1:09 pm

      Yes, stereotypes hurt, don’t they? I am drinking tea right now, and own several teapots, some quite pretty!

  2. dianabirchall permalink
    August 11, 2013 7:07 am

    The period after hurt and misspelling of Laurel Ann’s name were inserted by Spellcheck *after* posting. I swear.

  3. August 11, 2013 9:10 am

    The book, to me, didn’t really appeal towards any kind of “real” fandom of Jane Austen – just a young woman who happens to like the P&P movie and was interested in the book as a teen. She one day decides that her attraction to loser men is the fault of her idealist view of Mr. Darcy (when really, it seems that she doesn’t actually fall in love, but rather “in lust” and goes with it, which obviously will not be lasting based on her track record).

    Anyhoo… the trip to Austenland is a gift to her from a deceased aunt, so she is not actually this die-hard fan as the movie likes to depict. Given the spin they’ve decided to go with in the film (fan-girl craziness), I’ll likely see the movie, but will be going in expecting a bunch of silliness and enjoying the radness that is Jennifer Coolidge. Another movie that will have to be taken lightly as something separate from the actual book.

    • suzan permalink
      August 15, 2013 1:50 pm

      You are spot on. No one seems to catch those basic differences. I actually liked the book because it was unusual. I’m just not sure I want to ruin what I liked about it by watching the movie.

  4. August 11, 2013 9:56 am

    Thanks for this excellent review. Like you, I was mystified by the book and unsure who it was intended to appeal to, with its whiney, self-doubting narrator who seemed to have taken all the wrong lessons from her supposedly obsessive reading of Jane Austen. The fact that it was well-written only made it even more irksome. I thought a movie version might overcome some of the absurdities of the book, but this doesn’t seem to have been the case. With friends like this, why should Jane Austen need enemies?

    • August 11, 2013 1:13 pm

      Thank you for that. At the time, so many people (Shannon Hale has some very dedicated fans) told me I hadn’t read the book properly (what) and I didn’t really understand it that I have had the book sitting in a TBR pile for however many years, because I keep meaning to re-read it because clearly I got something wrong. I see, between here and the responses to my comment on Twitter, that I was not alone. I really don’t think Hale gets the fandom. I thought that at the time and I guess others think so, as well.

  5. LynnS permalink
    August 11, 2013 12:56 pm

    As usual, you have said exactly what I think, but in such an clever way that it is almost worth the execrable books and movies just to read your opinion of them.

    • August 11, 2013 1:19 pm

      :-) Thanks, Lynn. It took me a few days to write the review (I took out a lot more ranting) because it took me a while to put my finger on what I didn’t like about it. The mockery of the Austen fandom I’m kind of used to, but that women can make a movie mocking the female gaze makes me angry.

  6. August 12, 2013 1:44 am

    Having read the book (and relevant posts on Hale’s blog) I can say with certainly that one of Hale’s points about Jane Hayes is that she’s not a very good Austen fan. She’s obsessive and kind of a crazy but she doesn’t treat Austen’s work with the right kind of respect. She’ll swoon over Colin Firth’s wet shirt but she hides the “Pride and Prejudice” DVD in a plant pot. She has only a passing interest in “Northanger Abbey” etc … Jane has almost reached the stage where she thinks Austen’s books are just fluffy romances.

    Personally, I think Hale should have underlined that point more clearly.

    At the end of the book one of the last lines is about how Jane has put things back in perspective. She takes her “Pride and Prejudice” DVD out of the plant pot and puts it on the DVD shelf “spine out and proud.”

    • lga permalink
      August 20, 2013 1:26 pm

      I’d say much less than a passing interest in Northanger Abbey, which is one of the things I found most irksome about her. Northanger Abbey is a riot!

      • August 20, 2013 3:10 pm

        I still say passing interest. Jane Hayes did read “The Mysteries of Udolpho” to “appreciate” “Northanger Abbey” more. How many people with less than a passing interest go read “Udolpho” because of it? Not many I would think.

        Here’s Hale’s comment on “Northanger Abbey”:

        http://oinks.squeetus.com/2007/07/goth-girl.html

      • lga permalink
        August 20, 2013 8:31 pm

        Thanks for the link — I enjoyed reading that. I wonder if anyone’s actually done that “broad poll” of non-scholarly readers, though. My guess is that “Mansfield Park” would rank lower than “Northanger Abbey,” but of course that’s just a guess.

  7. August 12, 2013 4:08 am

    *sigh* so nice to have your clear-headed wit about us again. Did you see the NY premiere Mags?

    Janeite friends who went to the L.A. premiere shared their impressions the next day. YOU were kinder and funnier. They were really disenchanted and annoyed. They did say that JJ Feild was the best part about the movie. Eye candy or acting value? They did not clarify. It does not signify since he qualifies equally for high marks in both. There. Was that Austen fangirlish enough?

    It is disheartening that this all female production team would be so marginalizing to their own sex. I am always squeamish about people making sport of fandom – but women? This sounds like a low blow and fodder for those who wish to mock Austen fans and female gazing, or is it female gazing Austen fans?. Too bad. I will still go to see it anyway. My friends said parts are very funny and I dearly love a burlesque comedy now and again.

    Hale missed the opportunity to be warmly embraced by the Austen fandom circle when she neglected to name her hero Henry Nicely instead of Nobely. That would have made all the difference to me. ;-)

    Oh, and I also own a few teapots, have a cat, and other tarhearted qualities, so I guess I am doomed too.

    • August 12, 2013 10:35 am

      It was a press screening in Philadelphia. Carrie Rickey, former movie critic for the Inquirer and Friend of Jane, arranged for a few JASNA members to be included. It was not at all glamorous. :-) Most of the press who had reserved seats didn’t show up as far as I could tell. I was invited to advance screenings in NY but the dates didn’t work for me.

      JJ Feild being the best part of the movie: I concur, and for both being adorable and for great acting. Like I said, he got his Darcy on delightfully. I actually like that when I see it, even though I’m not Team Darcy. It’s like, “Yay! Somebody read the damn book!”

      Henry Nicely–ha ha! Yes, that would have been a great inside joke. I am still not sure if they were shooting for some inside jokes with this (though I do think that’s why they hired JJ, charm and talent aside) but if they did, they mostly fell kind of flat.

  8. August 12, 2013 6:00 pm

    Just as we expected (feared) :(. And still some of us will have to sit and watch it since we must judge first-hand for our phora or sites. I feel squeamish.

  9. August 21, 2013 4:03 am

    I have no intention of seeing “Austenland” (I recently read a NPR review that announced that women and gay men who love Austen do so because we’re all soooo into pining and heartache, and it turned me off so thoroughly that any interest I might otherwise have had in the movie was toast), but I wanted to let you know that I once had an e-mail exchange with the late author John Christopher—the guy who wrote the “Tripods” series, and an otherwise delightful, intelligent person—about Jane Austen, and he told me he honestly enjoyed Rozema’s “Mansfield Park”.

    My mind was blown.

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