Monday, September 2, 2013

Austenland [2013]

MPAA (PG-13) (2 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (D)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing (S. Wloszczyna) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

Austenland [2013] (directed and screenplay cowritten by Jerusha Hess along with Shannon Hale [IMDb] on whose novel the film was based) is probably not for everybody (and apparently not for a lot of critics ;-).

However, the concept is IMHO really quite good (dare one say "brilliant" ... ;-) and the more one thinks about it, the more I believe that even the most ardent "rolling their eyes" initial skeptics would have to concede that the story-tellers/film-makers here were onto something (Twilight Saga's Stephenie Meyer was a producer).   And if you've ever been obsessed by a particular author or a particular era, or have known someone who was, then this film could really be for you ;-)

The story revolves around Jane Hayes (played by Keri Russell) a late 20s/early 30 something woman from New York today who's been a life-long Jane Austen fanatic.  She's memorized the first three chapters of Pride and Prejudice since first reading it in high school.  She carries an I <3 Darcy handbag.  There's a I <3 Darcy banner in her cubicle at work.  She drinks from an I <3 Darcy coffee cup.  Her bedroom in her apartment looks like it could have come from a "Regency Era" doll-house.  She has figurines of Jane Austen characters scattered all over her house and in her cubicle at work.  She has a life-sized cut-out poster of Colin Firth playing Mr. Darcy in her living room.  Finally, she's been dumped by boyfriends because when she's brought them-up to her apartment and put-on a dvd of a Jane Austen story, she's really wanted to watch the film ("Wait, wait, you're gonna miss the best part..." ;-)

So it becomes inevitable that someone like Jane would catch wind of a England based resort called "Austenland" that promises patrons an "authentic immersive experience" into the "Regency Era" of Jane Austen's novels and against her best friend's advice Jane drops the better portion of her life-savings (at her age, probably a few grand) to have the Jane Austen experience of her dreams.  Still thinking that Jane's making a terrible mistake, her best friend nevertheless buys her a nice Austen-era country dress with matching hat and wishing her well drops Jane off in said attire, Jane looking like Jane Austen's Emma, at JFK airport for her flight "over the pond..." 

Things take a turn when she arrives at London's Heathrow Airport the next day.  While waiting to be picked-up by Austenland's "shuttle,"  Jane runs into another American who's going to Austenland as well.  A rather curvy late-30s/40-ish woman (played by Jennifer Coolidge) who one gets the sense probably never actually cracked-open a Jane Austen novel though she's probably read a fair number of Harlequin Romance knock-offs, she comes if not dressed yet for the part then with at least a plausibly Austenish sounding name calling herself Miss Elizabeth Charming.  And even if somewhat/largely clueless, she seems quite sincere/sweet and ... apparently she also comes loaded.

That the simple, sincere if largely clueless 40ish Elizabeth Charming is rich, while the far better versed, indeed über-versed Jane, is not becomes IMMEDIATELY IMPORTANT when the two arrive at the gate of Austenland's Estate: The wealthy Elizabeth Charming is led into her posh Regency Era quarters filled with all the amenities and all kinds of dresses of the time (the dresses often challenging for her to fit into, but available to her).  In contrast, Jane who may have dropped her life's-savings to go on this experience, nevertheless didn't exactly impress Mrs Wattlesbrook (played by Jane Seymour) running the experence as "hardly belonging to landed gentry" ;-).  Thus Jane, given the last name "Erstwhile" for the experience is rather unceremoniously given a rather spartan room in the "Servants' Quarters." Mrs Wattlesbrook then introduces Jane to the others in the experience as an "orphaned, poor relation" who the Wattlesbrooks had nevertheless "taken in, out of the goodness of our hearts." ;-) WELCOME FOLKS TO THE CLASS DISTINCTIONS OF JANE AUSTEN'S TIME ;-)

However, "poor relation" though she may be, JANE IS STILL ALLOWED TO BE "A RELATION."  Thus she's able, in fact, to be with BOTH "the servants" notably with a dashing "gardener" / "stable hand" named "Martin" (played by Bret McKenzie) whose last name, true to the custom of the time, apparently would not have been of any consequence to anyone, AND WITH THE FAMILY AND FRIENDS OF THE OWNERS OF THE MANOR ESTATE, "the Wattlesbrooks." 

And actually it's Mrs Wattlesbrook (played again wonderfully by Jane Seymour) who really runs the show.  Mr Wattlesbrook (played by Rupert Vansittart) is shown mostly drunk, quite literally farting around in the background most of the time.  He only comes to fore once when in a somewhat drunken stupor he lunges at "poor relation" Jane apparently to try to sexually assault her after he spots her coming back from stable hand Martin's hovel one evening.  Again, welcome to some of the dirt / hypocrisy of the "Regency Age" ... ;-).

The other characters (played by actors for the experience) are a hoot.  There's the pipe smoking, brandy drinking mustached "Colonel Andrews" (played by James Callis) who's visiting the Wattlesbrooks after spending "some years" out "in the Punjab."  There's "Lady Emilia Hartwright" (played by Georgia King) who apparently loved the experience so much the previous year that she's back for more.  There's the dashing (and generally shirtless) "Captain George East" (played by Ricky Whittle) who comes in "from the West Indies" midway through the experience with grand tales of fighting off pirates and Napoleon's warships to the distraction of both "Miss Charming" and "Miss Lady Hartwright."  And then there is the rather stiff "Mr. Henry Nobley' (played by J.J. Feild) introduced as Mrs. Wattlesbrook's nephew, spending time at the estate that summer after some unfortunate (and initially unclear) "recent experience with unrequited love." 

Okay folks ... what a setup to a story! ;-)  Much ensues ... and amusingly true to the film's often quite honest and "deconstructive" take on Jane Austen's era ... much of it has to do with KNITTING ;-) ... Why KNITTING?  Well ... what did young women from wealthier families living in the English countryside do in the 1820s?  THEY READ TO EACH OTHER BOOKS, THEY PLAYED CARDS, THEY PLAYED CROQUET, THEY SIGHED ... and THEY KNITTED ;-) ;-) ... while their MEN "HUNTED", drank brandy, smoked cigars and did other "manly things" of the time ;-)

What follows is just a great film.  Yes, there are a lot of romantic twists and turns.  Yes, there's "a Ball" near the end.  Yes, it doesn't "just end at the Ball" ... But yes it has to end well.  As a light, romantic film, one really couldn't ask for much more.

Stylistically, I would add that the film owes much to Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette [2006], blending the period clothes/sets with a contemporary soundtrack and perhaps to Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris [2011] (which too was about "going back to another time" in that case Paris of the 1920s).  Then Jane is definitely a young contemporary heroine (Stefanie Meyers' imprimatur is clearly felt).  Mrs Wattlesbrook may run the estate at Austenland but this is definitely modern 28 year-old Jane's story ...

All in all, the film's not going to be for everybody ... but for those who'd enjoy "time traveling" in this way, the film's a blast ;-).

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