Remember the butterfly feelings you got the first time you saw Mr Darcy – aka Colin Firth – dive into the lake at Pemberley and emerge on the other side, all wet and troubled in the BBC’s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice? If no goofy smile creeps over your face, this crazy comedy will have no bearing on you whatsoever – or, you’re a straight male who had to endure the sighs of another while watching this iconic moment of dreaminess in the 1995 TV mini-series.
Austenland tenderly mocks the avid Austen fan in a harmless, frivolous and screwball manner. It’s adapted by Gentlemen Broncos and Nacho Libre writer Jerusha Hess and Austenland author Shannon Hale, thanks to funding by Twilight author-turned-film-producer Stephenie Meyer’s Fickle Fish Films; the company’s aim being to translate authors’ works for the big screen. With Hess’s quirky comedic background and Meyer’s knowledge of what makes a girl tick, Austenland has that dubious label of ‘chick flick’ (just look at the pink and heart-adorned poster), with ‘chick’ being any female with a pulse who appreciates a gentlemanly hero and a good giggle at the same time.
Jane Hayes (Keri Russell) is an American girl obsessed with everything Pride and Prejudice, so much so, she books her life savings on a trip to the UK to take part in a Jane Austen theme park that’s run by the ever-so-slightly delusional Mrs Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour). Accompanied by two other life-long Austen fans, fellow American ‘Miss Elizabeth Charming’ (Jennifer Coolidge) and ‘Lady Amelia Heartwright’ (Georgia King), Jane gets to live her dream period, Regency time, knowing that a promised suitor is waiting at the end of the package. However, Jane soon realises fantasy and living in the past is not all it’s cracked up to be, and living for now has far better prospects.
A surprise Sundance 2013 entry, Austenland is absolutely not to be taken seriously, nor will it win any awards. However, it perfectly taps into a daydream that rings true for many while borrowing elements from any Carry On film (see the preening footmen). It’s daft and revels in that fact. Let’s face it, any film starring Coolidge busting out of a period bustier and talking like Dick van Dyke on a bad day is as superficial as it’s going to get. The rom-com roadmap for Jane – who’s like a Cinderella figure in this – is clearly planned out, and the dashing hero she ends up with is not entirely obvious at first.
Both Russell and Coolidge have a ball (literally), playing to type in the process and both enjoyable to watch. However, it’s Brit King who steals many scenes for utter lunacy, helped in part by James Callis as the camp Colonel Andrews and former footie player Ricky Whittle as the abs-obsessed Captain George East. The ‘Mr Darcy’ is JJ Feild’s pompous interpretation of a ‘Mr Henry Nobley’ who must fight for Jane’s affections opposite ‘the help’, Martin (Bret McKenzie of Flight of the Conchords fame). It’s just a shame that Seymour is underused, as she could have been a Mrs Bennet off the scale.
All in all, this pantomime farce is in good, hearty spirits and far removed from anything else at the box office at present. Austenland promises romance but is not ‘rom-com slushy’ getting to the point – it knowingly pokes fun at itself. There is a little indulgent musical medley during the credits too. If there was such a theme park, it would have visitors in their droves, hoping to capture a slice of Regency spice and saucy silliness like in the film. Those who like their period drama serious can enjoy the return of Downton Abbey. The rest can get a kick out of Austenland and simply enjoy the outrageous buffoonery.