I know I am about a year and half late on this review but I put off seeing Austenland because I hated the book so the movie didn’t hold much promise for me. However, enough of my friends and family encouraged me to see it and claimed it was better than the book I finally decided to watch it on my Netflix.
And the verdict is….
Basically the same as the book but I didn’t have to live in the movie for days so I suppose the movie is more tolerable.
So some things to mention before the review- I am a huge Austen fan. I read her 4 most popular books in the winter break of 1998 and was hooked. Since then I have read all 4 and even all 6 every year usually in the summer. They are witty and the heroines are bold and yet weak. Of course, I love the romance but it is the characters journey as told through romance that works. The romance itself is fairly predictable.
That’s where the book and movie are misguided. Austen is not great because they are romantic. They are great because they involve choices, judgements, forgiveness, foolishness and of course love. In the story of Austenland we lose all but the love and it makes for a very unsatisfying story.
The story of Austenland starts out with an interesting lead character. Jane, played by Kerri Russell, is a die hard Austen fan. This could be the female version of the many ‘manchild’ movies we’ve seen with men who can’t grow up (usually with Will Farrell or Seth Rogan). I would be interested to see more movies with these type of women.
Austenland was also directed, written, produced almost entirely by women, which I think is great. In the words of Cate Blanchett ‘the world has curves’ and movies should reflect this. The fact that so many movies fail something as basic as the Bechdel test is very sad indeed. We should do better.
That said, I am not going to give it a pass merely because of it’s female pedigree. That would be unfair. I have to judge it like any other movie.
So, back to the story… Jane gets an inheritance and decides to fulfill her life dream and go to a living play experience called Austenland. It is similar to a murder mystery parties that were popular about 10 years ago but it’s over weeks. All of the staff are actors playing parts down to the servants.
Jennifer Coolidge gets some of the funniest bits as a ditzy American guest (she has played this role many times before with funnier dialogue. See the Christopher Guest movies). But even her lines feel so strained and molded into this ridiculous premise. Whether in the book or movie I couldn’t buy this place existing and appealing to anyone, even the most die hard of Austen fans.
However, if you accept the premise so many of the jokes fall flat. There is an extended scene with a play that I didn’t think was funny. There are pratfalls and falls on horses that weren’t funny. And a horse giving birth scene which would have you believe a foal comes out in the time it takes a woman to grab a handful of hay or at least that Jane believes such a thing. Really, Jane?
Then things became awkward when a member of the ‘cast’ assaults Jane and yet she continues on with her stay. Did she just think that was part of the play? A little regency era attempted rape to complete your stay….Like I said it went from unfunny to uncomfortable and even a little creepy.
You also see the behind the scenes of the actors which makes the scenes in costume feel even weirder. And yet with all that they tag on the most unbelievable ending. Like I said earlier, Austen’s romances worked because of choices the characters made, tough choices. They were often brave and loyal to a fault. The characters that are impetuous, romantic and silly, are all either taught to be more sensible or are unhappy in their choice (Lydia, Marianne, Mary Musgrove, Catherine and even Emma).
Aside from coming to the park and then leaving Jane in the movie doesn’t really make any tough choices. Everything happens to her not by her, making the story less gripping. There is not the sense of a character growing and the viewer isn’t left wondering ‘will Jane’s foibles spoil her chance at real love?’.
Austen’s heroines do not need rescue and they would not have had dramatic romcom scenes at airports. Maybe a letter perhaps (or lengthy email) but I can’t think of any bold romantic gestures in an Austen book. Perhaps Darcy fixing Lydia’s problem but even that expected no fanfare and he didn’t even want Lizzy to know of his involvement. Such soft and subtle characters builds tension and makes the ending so satisfying. They are not simply the wild passionate love but the careful consideration of two hearts meant to be together, that almost weren’t.
The couple in Austenland don’t really spend that much time together and they have even less actual conversations (and a lot of that is staged for a long time or we don’t know how much is staged by either one). The ending would have been a lot more satisfying if she had sued the place and changed her life (learned something).
In the end, it just didn’t make me laugh. A big problem in a comedy. I think I’ll go watch Mr Collins propose. Now that is funny…
Overall Grade D
Content Grade B+ (It’s pretty innocent. Even the assault is tame, birth tame, some heaving bosoms, no bad language)
I’m always open for others opinions. Don’t worry I have thick skin, so please comment.
If you want a more satisfying, if still imperfect, modern version of women confronting Jane Austen try The Jane Austen Book Club.