Thursday, August 15, 2013

Lost in AUSTENLAND


Austenland is a film of affection for its inspirations, which happen to be the works of Jane Austen in general, but even more specifically the romantic comedy. It’s been ages since we’ve had a good one, so it makes a certain amount of sense that this film works as one by foregrounding its fictional status and thinking about locating your ideal romance squarely in the safe confines of literature. Based on the novel by Shannon Hale, who also co-wrote the screenplay, the film takes place at the titular Austenland, a resort that promises the ultimate Jane Austen experience. The owner (Jane Seymour) welcomes guests to spend time on the grounds of a richly appointed Regency Era home set on a large sweep of generous county acreage. The period wardrobe appears to be provided. It’s all so perfectly too-much and just-so, a tackiness that comes from an overabundance of frippery. Maybe it’s the small taxidermy farm animals scattered about that puts it over the top. To maintain the fictional illusion, the guests must abstain from all modern convenience (except for indoor plumbing, which is thankfully provided).

Our entry into this world is Jane Hayes, winningly played by Keri Russell. She’s an ordinary woman with a fine job and a string of bad breakups. Her apartment is covered in Austen merchandise, up to and including a banner over her bed that reads “Mrs. Darcy.” Unattached and with vacation time to spare, she jets off to England to visit Austenland and get lost in the literature she loves. Jane discovers that visitors to the resort come in different varieties. The other women attending this particular week are an uninhibited wealthy woman (Jennifer Coolidge), who seems to know little of Austen’s work, and a younger lady (Georgia King), so deep into character her real self barely surfaces at all. Deliberate caricatured, the guests are instantly recognizable as superfans. They may not have Jane’s merchandise, but they’re commitment to leaving modern day real world concerns behind is total. It’s not so strange. After all, it was none other than E. M. Forster who once wrote, “I am a Jane Austenite, and therefore slightly imbecile about Jane Austen.”

That Austen is a novelist who attracts a devoted following is not news. It’s a phenomenon that predates Colin Firth’s Darcy’s dip in the water by more than a century. She speaks so directly to the hearts and minds of her biggest fans, conjuring her characters with such matter-of-fact precision. She writes crisply and sparklingly with easy wit and pithy observation, sometimes both at once, “It is a truth universally acknowledged” and all that. To fans Austen is not just a Great Author. She is, in her capability to inspire in some of her readers the kind of zealous personal attachments we’d more often associate with, say, superhero superfans, a great author as friend. It’s no wonder that her biggest fans, on a first-name basis with good old Jane, seem to be able to disappear into her world again and again.

That’s what Austenland concerns itself with, as the three ladies take tea, ride horses, sketch, sew, sing, gossip, and dine. At the end of the week there will be a ball. All along, they interact with actors playing typically Austen types of men: a prickly Darcy (JJ Feild), a colonel (James Callis), a captain (Ricky Whittle), and an inebriated patriarch (Rupert Vansittart). For all the artifice, Jane finds herself drawn to the resort’s handyman (Bret McKenzie). The cast is universally charming. Russell is a fine, appealing, immensely likable center. We want what’s best for her. The others, from scene-stealer Coolidge to marvelously prickly Feild, create sparkling chemistry and fill in great supporting detail.

Jerusha Hess, who co-wrote Napoleon Dynamite, Nacho Libre, and Gentlemen Broncos with her husband Jared, directs Austenland with a light, confident touch. Her tableaus don’t grow stiff and awkward like in those earlier efforts, but rather pop with delightful detail. This is a film that’s sprightly. She stages the film’s unexpected complexities with ease. The world of the film is at once ridiculous and relatable, broad shtick with heart. She pushes the exaggerated characters and locale without losing the real emotions and warmth in it. The affection for the characters and for Austen is infectious, the details that make up the resort’s activities funny in unexpected ways. When the group trudges out to the fields for an old-fashioned quail hunt, it’s with matter-of-fact precision that the employees launch stuffed birds into the sky.

All along we dance through meta-layers of storytelling. Guests are acting and actors are acting, but all are aware of the artifice. And yet, the artifice itself can provoke very real emotions that can carry over into reality. That the film is interested in its premise and characters enough to actually consider all sides of the scenario is welcome and hilarious. Some guests find themselves romantically drawn to the actors, but are they drawn to the character or the real person underneath? In a nice touch, we eventually cut behind the curtain to see the actors themselves gossiping about the guests. Is it possible the artifice can be broken from their side as well? It’s a film thoroughly and literally scrambling concepts of reality and fiction in much the same way Austen superfans (or any superfans, for that matter) do when lost in a fictional world.

Austenland designs stories for its guests’ amusement in much the same way Austenland designs all of them for ours. This is a film that’s a breezy, warm comedy that’s light on its feet. It’s at once a loving spoof of Austen tropes and a loving embrace of her marvelous plotting and emotional stakes. But I’ve been making it sound weightier and trickier than it is. The film is a clear and bouncy comedy, filled with loud pop music and tickling asides. The mix of comic conventions eventually puts us near where Austen and rom-coms alike tend to, but the whole-hearted embrace of its every aspect is a total delight from beginning to end. It’s a film that can wink the whole time through and still in the end make one swoon, too.


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