As I looked around the movie theater last weekend in Scottsdale, AZ, it was pristinely clear that Austenland had attracted its target audience. The estrogen in the theater was potent, with only a few sparse men present, attached to girlfriends or husbands. I was definitely the only man there who wasn’t with his female significant other. Despite that fact, I couldn’t have been happier to be there.
Now, granted, my wife Anne was originally supposed to come with me, but she ended up not being able to come (and will instead be attending this weekend with a group of women). But it says something about me that, despite that hiccup, I was still intent to go to the film by myself (not just so I could write the review, but because I was super excited to see it). Blame it on my seven sisters, but, in my heart of hearts, I’d much rather watch Downton Abbey than the Superbowl. As a result of that brainwashing at the hands of my sisters, I’m very affectionate towards Regency/Victorian literature, BBC period dramas, black and white Jimmy Stewart films, and even a well made rom-com. Thus the new film Austenland, a tongue in cheek love letter to the hordes of Jane Austen fans that span the globe… well, it was right up my alley.
And this is the up hill battle Austenland faces. The film’s portrait of Jane Hayes, a woman whose fanatic love for all things Jane Austen motivates her to invest her life savings into a weekend fantasy retreat where she gets to act out those fantasies with actors and other fellow BBC cosplayers, has a real world corollary. There was even one such audience member in the theater who was decked out in her full Regency costume to celebrate the film. And, as outlandish of extremes as the film sometimes portrays its characters going to, many of these Austenites truly do take their Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Persuasion quite seriously. And they have definite opinions in how Jane Austen, and the culture and fandom surrounding her, is portrayed. Austenites may take a bit of gentle ribbing, but that’s a dangerous road that requires a delicate balance, for, despite their love of satire, a true fan will not be mocked, especially by perceived outsiders. Being a part of any fandom is a sensitive position, at once delightfully heady when you’re among fellow fans, but also initiates a certain defensiveness when the fans feel like they are being made fun of by the rest of the world.
Fortunately for the film, such a balance is struck, working both as a satire and a tribute. Firstly, it helps that it seems that the women involved (producer Stephenie Meyer, director Jerusha Hess, star Kerri Russell, and especially the original novel’s author/co-screenwriter Shannon Hale) seem to have an insider’s love for the material. It also helps (and is downright refreshing) that the chief creators are all women. The last thing an Austenite would have appreciated is a Hollywood Executive-Patriarch patronizing them to win a quick buck. An Austenite can smell a faker from a mile away. Those who read and view Austen stories do so because they are passionate about them. If they sense that those behind such projects are not equally passionate, it’s dead in the water. The various connections to Austen’s books that the film makes (whether it’s comical allusions to Persuasion‘s handsome sea captains; a manically disjointed Mansfield Park-like production of an amateur play; or the obvious plot similarities the show shares with Pride and Prejudice), reveals that the film’s creators love the books, even as they turn the stories and the archetypes on their heads.
Now some may think that having one of the creators of quintessentially quirky and broad humored Napoleon Dynamite, Jerusha Hess, in the director’s chair may be an odd choice to helm a show that deals with such a subtle satirist as Austen. But, when you look at the pairing, there are a number of similarities in the humor that can be found in cultural misfits like those found in Nacho Libre or Napoleon Dynamite alongside the Regency obsessed attendants of Austenland. Each of the films analyze through affectionate satire those on the fringes of their respective societies. They tell the tales of those who have, despite the alienation they have experienced, still carved out their own unique place in the world regardless, and made their small, but personally meaningful, triumphs.
Another thing can be said of Hess’s helming of the show is that she and her cast/crew certainly made that target audience LAUGH. The hearty female laughter came often and came sincerely and I just grinned from ear to ear, enjoying the audience’s response nearly as much as I was enjoying the film itself. And that’s something that can be missing from the cynical critics’ assessments of the film, especially when they’ve been sent a DVD, or were sitting in a preview showing full of other critics… there was a huge communal ENJOYMENT in that theater last weekend. Laughter was free! There were no snooty inhibitions, no one judging this group of women (and a few men), who were having the time of their lives reveling in something they loved.
It also didn’t hurt that the producers and director put together an excellent cast. Kerri Russell is as radiant as ever, bringing nuance and dimension to the socially awkward Jane, who comes into a wisdom, beauty, and maturity of her own. J.J. Field, doing his second Austen centered film (previously playing ably in Masterpiece Theatre’s Northanger Abbey) was an absolute revelation in the Mr. Darcy/Mr. Knightly inspired role of Mr. Nobley. At one point Jane leans over and whispers into Nobley’s ear and says something to the effect of, “Even though it wasn’t real, you were perfect.” In the context of this production, that compliment was certainly earned. He’s leading man material. Both Field and Russell played their lead roles with such authenticity, charm, and warmth that it was hard not to route for their relationship, even when the plot went in (interestingly) unexpected directions. Bret McKenzie was also excellent as the third prong of the love triangle. The plot keeps you guessing with these three, and although the ending ties back neatly to the romantic comedy devices it makes fun of, in this case it feels earned.
The supporting cast, although more broad and less nuanced than the leads, were no less delightful. A lot has been said in other reviews about Jennifer Coolidge and the spades of humor she brings to her role of Elizabeth Charming, who hardly knows a thing about Austen, but has come to the resort seeking a more lusty experience than the chaste romance of yesteryear. James Callis (known for his role as Gaius to Battlestar Gallactica fans like myself) is great fun, while Georgia King (who I recognized from her guest appearance on BBC’s Merlin) was also broadly, but consistently funny. You could tell that these actors were having a ball with their roles. Ricky Whittle was also very fun playing an actor who was more given more to, erm, swarthy roles in the past, rather than the classical training required to play in an Austenite’s fantasy. And, of course, having Jane Seymour grace the cast, is a delightful nod to the kind of source material that inspired such romantic feelings in characters like Jane in the first place, although Seymour has graduated from the romantic lead to the comical villain in this case. Her being there gave me flashbacks of falling in love with her as a boy when I watched movies like Somewhere in Time and The Scarlet Pimpernel, which were staples in that home of mine with seven sisters.
Along with the comedy and frothy romance, however, was also some more substantial meaning behind the film. The relationship between fantasy and reality, specifically where one ends and the other begins, was an interesting philosophical bone to chew on. Yet instead of going into full out cynicism, as the film easily could have, it still held out hope that within that package of fantasy was still something very real upon which it was based. It still dared to hope that when you took out all the unrealistic fantasies that set up true romance for failure, there was still something substantial in the thing we call love. That, while recognizing the unrealistic expectations that are trapped under the period dresses and balls and chases to the airport, that there was still something real at the center of the Austen novels and romantic comedies that so many women (and a number of men) cling to. Being a happily married man, I would like to think there is some wisdom in that, but whether true or not, it’s exactly what that target audience wanted to hear that night. They wanted to be reminded that, whether they look like Mr. Darcy or Elizabeth Bennett, or perhaps some one a little more common, love may not be a myth after all.