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Austenland — a movie by Jerusha Hess

Oh, to have a time machine and hear what Jane Austen, that instructive employer of wry comment and dripping sarcasm, would have to say about the current movie, Austenland, which depicts a British tourist site that caters to aficionados of England’s early 19th century Regency???????? period and, particularly, to devotees of the caustic Miss Austen whose novels wittily and romantically chronicle life in the author’s time.

“Miss Hess,” she may comment to Austenland’s colossally inept director Jerusha Hess, “After viewing your work, I cannot say I have many regrets that motion pictures did not exist in my time. I demur at using the word ‘drivel,’ but I must say I wonder at much of what you show in your film. If your intention is indeed to satirize people who go to possibly silly extremes in their admiration of my writings, or to lampoon present-day establishments that purport to convey an earnest traveler  to an earlier era but do so with guile and deception, then I believe you might have proceeded in your endeavour with some modicum of taste and some example of authenticity that would contrast the sentimental and tawdry aspects you attempt to disdain with a genuine appreciation of literature and some semblance of the actual daily life and manners of the day you claim to depict. Somehow, you don’t. Really, you don’t. Your failure is a pity, Miss Hess, because the premise you have selected offers you so much rich material from which you can work.”

Austenland smacks of being phony from the first scene that reveals the lead character, Jane Hayes’s, bedroom. If Jane is to be taken as someone who is genuinely in tune with the spirit of Jane Austen, including the romantic spirit, Jerusha Hess cannot allow her set decorator to present a room that looks as if it was put together by a 12-year-old whose town provides only a Wal-Mart in which she can shop.  Jane may be a self-professed nerd, whose obsession with all things Austen, and especially her romance with Pride and Prejudice’s Mr. Darcy, provide a framework for her life and attitude towards men, but she is not stupid, insensitive, or unsophisticated. If she is to be the stand-in for Elizabeth Bennet in the screenplay Hess writes with Austenland’s creator, novelist Shannon Hale, we have to believe she has the same sensibility as Elizabeth and see her express it in her surroundings, including her choices of decoration. Jane’s bedroom features a bed that would have been rejected in the Regency era, had it been designed by then, juvenile block letters proclaiming love for Mr. Darcy, and frills and frou-frou that have a lot more to do with third-rate Hollywood than with Regent’s Park, Belgravia, Bath, or any place an Austen heroine might be found. Even the period costumes Jane chooses, particularly the one she wears on her arrival to Austenland, are hideous and totally out of keeping with any apparel a person who repeatedly watches the 1995 Masterpiece Theatre production of Pride and Prejudice, the brilliant one that starred Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, would elect to don. Hess and Hale keep Jane a nerd and nothing more. They don’t seem to realize that she’s supposed to represent Elizabeth Bennet, she must be superior in the way Elizabeth is. Elizabeth’s mother, or one or two of her sisters, may go in for the tacky and vulgar, but Elizabeth would have the innate sense to rise above kitsch or eschew it outright. By engulfing Jane in bad, immature décor and dressing her in dubious fashions, the screenwriters undermine their character. They make her the joke instead of the person who wrestles nonsense into reason. Jane may be criticized for going overboard in her affection for Austen and her longing to meet Mr. Darcy, but these have to be the eccentricities of a romantic and not the childish goofiness of a 30-something you can imagine spending her vacations having lunch in Anaheim with Disney princesses. You have to respect and root for Jane. Hess has made that difficult to do.  Keri Russell, as Jane, doesn’t improve matters with her superficial performance that conveys no mood, thought, or emotion that is deeper than a raindrop.

Arrival at  Austenland only makes matters worse. You expect in a story of this kind that a resort that specializes in a particular theme may not be all it advertises itself to be. You expect to see the proverbial cracks in the plaster and flies in the ointment. That’s part of the fun, the exposure of the fakery and chintziness that often lurks behind the scenes of an elegant charade.  Austenland doesn’t give the eponymous English retreat the chance to reveal its uglier side. It shows it from the beginning.

Jane no sooner arrives at Austenland, but she is told that since she bought the cheaper, Copper, package while the other guests all bought the top-of-the-line, Platinum, package, she will have to take the role of a poor relative who is given refuge at the country estate to keep her from descending into dire poverty. This would have been funny if Hess and Hale set up the situation better, if the news was said with sympathy by a social director who explained role playing and tactfully gave Jane the news that her stay has limitations. But no. Heavy-handedly, the proprietress of Austenland, Mrs. Waddlesbrook, venom oozing from each syllable, informs Jane of her inferior status in front of another guest.  While that guest, played with appalling hamminess by Jennifer Coolidge, is shown to a beautifully, if artificially, appointed room, Jane is shown to neat quarters in the servant’s wing. Once again, this could have been, and should have been, a source of comedy, but Hess is so literal and blatant in her presentation, any joke about accommodations or Jane’s position at Austenland, fall flat with a thud. The absence of subtlety or Jane’s slowly realizing she is not being treated like a paying guest robs the scene, and the movie, of any chance at commentary. Everything in spelled out for you instead of having the chance to unfold and become a revelation. The wonder isn’t that Mrs. Waddlebrook is so mean, but that Jane puts up with the high-handedness and accepts it as her due.  Hess and Hale are obviously trying to work in another reference to an Austen plot, this time from Mansfield Park, by casting Jane as Fanny Price, the cousin housed more out of pity than out of familial love. Their conceit doesn’t work. Again, the director and author don’t have the finesse to realize their intention. They also have no sense of consistency. All devices invented after Jane Austen’s lifetime are verboten at Austenland — Jane is pilloried for using a modern contraption in yet another sloppily conceived scene — but Mrs. Waddlesbrook constantly speaks to guests over a loudspeaker. Again, this could be joke if Hess knew how to present it with irony. Possibly the worst structured scene is one in which Jane is asked to demonstrate a skill expected from Regency and early Victorian women, playing the piano. Rather than surprise the gathering with a sonata by Mozart, Bach, Vivaldi, or Gluck, Jane launches into an especially jarring rock piece. Wrong! All wrong! For the situation and the character. Jane would aim to please and want to stay in period and within her persona. This sequence is too unbelievable to be a joke. It is an example of an author, Hale, not knowing her own work.

Likewise, Jane’s fellow guests are too unbelievable to be real or jokes. They are caricatures that provide no humor because they are so follishly and amateurishly drawn. Coolidge’s character adopts the name Elizabeth Charming , an allegedly wealthy woman who has few clues about Jane Austen or her writings and who just wants to run around an estate shouting “Tally ho” or other cliches she thinks are British. Coolidge has never been an actress known for subtlety, and here she overacts every thrusting of her breast or winking of her eye. Another character, played with some genuine comic effect by Georgia King, chooses Lady Amelia Heartwright, as her Austenland moniker. Hess and Hall try to make Amelia the Billie Dawn of Austenland, an ignorant creature who loves playing at pageantry and pawing the actors paid to play Regency beaux, but again, the character is created and portrayed too broadly. King tries to have moments as Amelia, and she occasionally succeeds, but Hess’s lack of directorial judgment will stymie any attempt to do good work. Even the usually competent Jane Seymour is given no chance to portray a credible human, or resort owner, as Mrs. Waddlesbrook. One question, never answered,  is how Seymour’s character is able to maintain Austenland at all when she has only three guests and three dozen employees. (With a good movie, you would ignore such questions.)

The male cast is also directed to overdo their roles whether they are playing Regency romancers in scenes involving croquet, dinners, and formal balls with the guests or lounging about out of costume as employees enjoying the Austenland pool.  Ricky Whittle may have a beautifully sculpted body and an attractive come-hither gaze, but he plays his part as if were a cartoon and is as shallow in his portrayal as Keri Russell is as Jane. James Callis’s portrayal of charm can be spotted as false from the moon. He is oily while playing an amorous colonel is the masquerade scenes and equally slimy when he takes a break from acting the colonel. Bret Mackenzie, playing a stablehand Jane who strikes up a mutual, if disapproved upon, friendship with Jane, is handsome and jaunty enough, but he also lacks the acting intensity to make anything he does real or meaningful. Rupert Vansittart is more successfully convincing as Mr. Waddlesbrook, playing his role with a style of a performer in an authentic comedy of manners.

The best performance comes from J.J. Feild who is lucky enough to have the reserved and respectable part of the Darcy stand-in, and therefore gets to be aloof and real while his castmates are either acting their heads off or diminishing their careers. Whether taking on Darcy’s persona in Mrs. Waddlesbrook’s game, or portraying the actor hired to play Darcy, Feild is in control and seems natural. He is one of the few cast members Hess calls on to play an honest human emotion, and Feild does so with aplomb. He is to be congratulated for being able to give a thoughtful performance amid all of Hess’s hooey.

As an idea, Austenland has such potential, it’s sad to see it wasted by being fleshed out by alleged artists with no imagination or taste. Hess and Hale know where the jokes are. They are just too dim to set them up or play them right. The plot is not the problem. The miserable execution is. For a smart look at a similar theme, I refer you to Julian Barnes’s clever and truly funny novel, “England, England,” about an entrepreneur who, realizing no tourist can satisfactorily visit England in a single week’s vacation, creates a theme park that encapsulates all of Britain’s famous sites, from the Roman baths and Stonehenge to Shakespeare’s Stratford and Big Ben on one multi-acre tract that also features a chance to see major historical, literary, and fictional characters. The part in which the actor hired to play Samuel Johnson begins to take his part literally and actually becomes Dr. Johnson is particularly hilarious.

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4 comments on “Austenland — a movie by Jerusha Hess

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This entry was posted on September 10, 2013 by in Movie Reviews.

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