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.