Jane Austen has provided as fertile a ground for adaptation as nearly any author in the last century. From her most beloved works (“Pride & Prejudice” and “Sense and Sensibility") to more modern interpretations (“Clueless,” “Bridget Jones's Diary”), her work has inspired countless filmmakers to try their hand at bringing her stories to life. Between romantic literature courses, reruns of the BBC production of “Pride & Prejudice” and pop culture riffs like "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies," new fans are still being made every day. In Sundance premiere “Austenland,” Keri Russell plays one such fan, Jane Hayes, a 30-something woman who has become so obsessed with finding a Mr. Darcy of her own, she’s inadvertently closed herself off to real relationships that fail to measure up with her fantasies. Her room is covered in Austen memorabilia with a particular fixation on Mr. Darcy of whom she has a life-size cardboard cutout. “I am single because the only good men are fictional,” she says hopelessly.
Not long after Jane strikes out with a potential beau, she finds the perfect getaway for herself: a trip to Austenland, a sort of theme park located at a manor in the English countryside that allows guests to roleplay the faux romance of their dream, complete with new British sounding monikers, corsets and actors filling out the various roles. So after an extremely brief setup, Jane is off to England where she meets fellow guests “Elizabeth Charming” (Jennifer Coolidge), a loutish American, and the bouncy but refined “Lady Amelia Hartwright” (Georgia King), who seems to have a much better handle on staying in character. At the estate she’s greeted by the cast of characters, including owner Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour) as well as her potential suitors: the giggly preening Colonel Andrews (James Callis), beefcake pirate Captain George East (Ricky Whittle) and Mr. Darcy-ish Henry Nobley (J.J. Feild).
After their arrival, the trio of women are entertained night and day by these men, playing cards, going horseback riding and being generally entertained. But despite how much she’s dreamed of this, Jane has trouble fully giving into the roleplay and strikes up a friendship with the servant Martin (“Flight of the Conchords” star Bret McKenzie), who also drops character around her. After a few afternoons sneaking around it seems pretty clear that Jane is supposed to give up the fantasy (Mr. Darcy/Henry Nobley) and realize that real relationships are ultimately more satisfying when they don’t have to live up to an impossible expectation of romance. Russell is an actress who has always been a joy to watch onscreen, no matter how briefly she shows up (“Mission: Impossible 3” for example), but she’s definitely underutilized here.
Jane is just too underdeveloped and is forced to take a backseat through the first third of the film or so while Christopher Guest veteran Coolidge improvises up a storm. Coolidge’s one-liners usually land but her comedy chops tend to overshadow the rest of the cast. And not that a comedy should necessarily be held to a standard of realism, but it’s kind of preposterous that this entire operation is keeping its doors open with just three guests at a time for what seems like a week+ long stay. But regardless, it seems like another missed opportunity to make Austenland kind of a crappy place, instead it’s actually pretty great. The film’s biggest issue is that along the way it becomes impossible to track who’s pretending and who’s not.
Nobley protests at the thought of participating in a play but it’s unclear if its really him who doesn’t want to act (which seems strange since his entire role is an actor) or if his character that doesn’t want to participate. Likewise Jane seems only to connect with Martin, telling him “I want something real” but a few short scenes later it appears her affections may lie elsewhere. Some of this gets sorted out by the time the third act rolls around but it’s still difficult to stay invested in the middle of the film when you’re not sure if Jane has real feelings for either of them.
The film is the directorial debut of Jerusha Hess, who co-wrote along with her husband Jared “Napoleon Dynamite,” “Nacho Libre” and “Gentlemen Broncos.” The filmmaker has said that after the very dude-centric trio of films she was looking for something with more of a female perspective and instantly connected with the novel by Shannon Hale’s with whom she co-wrote the screenplay. Hess’ directorial style isn’t nearly as fussy as her husband’s (despite an opening scene that fits very much into that universe) though it's just as playful. The film has some great comic performances (James Callis and Georgia King are probably the MVP’s) and the soundtrack is full of '80s soft rock gems like “Lady In Red,” “Bette Davis Eyes” and “Only You” (though it's never clear why exactly), but it doesn’t all come together. There's no doubt Austen fans will find things to admire, but like the protagonist, you can’t help but leave “Austenland” feeling a bit unfulfilled. [C]