By Gary Murray
Starring Keri Russell, Jennifer Coolidge and J.J. Feild
Written by Jerusha Hess and Shannon Hale
Directed by Jerusha Hess
Running time 97 min
MPAA rating PG-13
Selig Film Rating Matinee
Keri Russell is basically a television actress who has been making headway into major motion pictures. She has appeared in Mission: Impossible III, We Were Soldiers and Waitress. Her latest is to revive the romantic comedy and is called Austenland.
The tale of the film is about Jane Hayes (Keri Russell). She is in her 30s with no man and few interested candidates. She is also obsessed with the world of Jane Austen novels. She dreams to meet her own Darcy. Eventually, she blows her life savings on going to England and Austenland.
Austenland is basically a B&B in the countryside. It is an English manor, the kind of place written of in Pride & Prejudice. It has now been turned into an amusement park of a sort. Imagine combining West World with Downton Abbey. It is also full of archetype British fiction men (but no Yul Brynner in a cowboy hat).
Off the plane and in full English maiden gear, Jane meets a fellow traveler (Jennifer Coolidge). The two become fast friends on the travel to the destination. The other woman is just looking for fun and sex but has no real concept of Jane Austen.
At the manor, they meet Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour). The matron lets the two newbies know that no modern devices are allowed from that point forward. They are both dressed in traditional garb and taken to the big house for a week of refinement and romance. The co-traveler gets the identity of a very rich Miss Elizabeth Charming while Jane is saddled with being an orphan. This is the first of her many disappointments.
Jane finds out, like in the time of Austen, there are different classes at the manor and she is in the lowest package, the copper package. The days consist of sewing and banter, with meals served by coated man-servants. To be honest, it feels like a dull vacation.
Jane meets the gardener, Martin (Bret McKenzie). He is a strapping young man who thinks all this play-acting is a bit silly. Jane falls for his simple charms. At the same time, her character is to be infatuated by Henry Nobley (J.J. Feild). He is the Darcy of her fantasy tale, an introspective young man that the heroine falls for. Eventually, Jane decides to take the script that has been laid out for her and turn it on its ear. By breaking the conventions of the plot, the film begins to fall into sitcom territory.
There are some nice twists and turns to get to our romantic ending. Where the first third of the film lashes out at the conventions of the genre, it is in the last third of the film that the genre falls firmly into place. The film had a nice but ingenious finish.
The reason to see the film is not to be surprised by the story but to enjoy the journey the tale takes. In order to do that, the cast must be up to the task. This is a stellar bit of casting. The writing of Shannon Hale and the directing of Jerusha Hess are not enough to hold attention.
Keri Russell has always turned in some fine work but here she gets a chance to be funny. There is this certain charm to her acting, feeling a bit silly in corsets and bonnets. On more than one occasion, she is a trouper. Her finding out what is real and what is pretend drives the film to its pat ending.
For anyone who has seen American Pie, they know the work of Jennifer Coolidge. This is a big step forward for the actress and she plays brashness to a tee. She delivers line after line with solid comedic timing. The scenes between her and Keri Russell become magic.
In the secondary cast, there are two standout performances. Georgia King plays Lady Amelia Heartwright, another guest at the manor. She banters and claws with our two female protagonists to a stunning degree and her eventual reveal is side-splitting. The other actor who needs mention is J.J. Feild as Henry Nobley. It is a subtle and subdued reading that eventually pulls at the heartstrings. It is some honest acting from a basically unknown performer.
Finally, it is always good to see Jane Seymour in a film. She is a fan favorite Bond Girl who pets a stuffed lamb in same manner of Dr. Evil from Austin Powers. It is a small part that she does with a certain over-the-top charm.
Austenland is a film for Jane Austen fans who have never actually read an entire Jane Austen novel. The world of Austenland, the amusement, is very far off from the reality of the time. The film is about real love verses fantasy love and how combining the two is a very dangerous game. This is definitely a ‘chick flick’ that men will tolerate.