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2013 | 97 min | PG-13 | 2.39:1



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Theatrical release date

 16 August, 2013
 27 September, 2013

Country of origin

 United Kingdom

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Screenshots from Austenland Blu-ray

Austenland Preview  

 / 10
Preview by Brian Orndorf, August 29, 2013

Based on the novel by Shannon Hale, “Austenland” arrives with a premise ripe with potential. With opportunities for satire and romance, while giving period film tropes a thorough pantsing, the material appears ideal for screen exploration, yet in the hands of first-time director Jerusha Hess, “Austenland” is unsteady and unsure of itself. While Jane Austen fanatics will likely delight in the unabashed fandom of all things Mr. Darcy, the feature just isn’t up to snuff, often caught floundering with easy lay-up jokes while playing into Austen formula instead of dissecting its intoxicating quality. The picture has charm and a bright lead performance from Keri Russell, but it doesn’t come together as cohesively as it should.

Thirtysomething and lost in a Jane Austen fantasy world, Jane Hayes (Keri Russell) is aching for an adventure. Emptying her savings account, Jane buys a ticket to Austenland, a themed getaway where everyday folk can live the literary lifestyle of rural England in the 1800s. Meeting up with fellow traveler Elizabeth (Jennifer Coolidge), Jane is disappointed to see her investment doesn’t carry far enough with owner Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour), sent to play out the plain experience with a staff made up of actors -- professionals prepared to give customers immersive bang for their buck. As the week commences, Jane is delighted to experience Austen’s world firsthand, mingling with Col. Andrews (James Callis), Captain East (Ricky Whittle), and Mr. Nobley (J.J. Feild), though her attention quickly turns to stablehand Martin (Bret McKenzie). Caught up in a love affair with the forbidden employee, Jane finally lands her ultimate fantasy, only to find Mr. Nobley making a play for her heart as well.

The co-writer and producer of “Napoleon Dynamite,” “Nacho Libre,” and “Gentlemen Broncos” (working with husband Jared Hess), Jerusha Hess steps into the director’s chair for “Austenland,” and she seems terrified of the challenge. It’s a hesitant film, overthinking some jokes and underplaying emotions, while editing is amateurish, displaying no flow to the story as it limps along from one scene to the next. The concept of “Austenland” is wide open for a romp where Jane comes face-to-face with her fantasies, finally stepping into the dreamland that’s dominated her life, yet Hess can only summon a few twitches of gleeful inspiration, and those are burned off early as the heroine makes her way to the magical estate, creating an enticing build up as Jane experiences her idea of heaven.

Jane’s lifelong obsession with Austen is glossed over quickly, trying to get the character positioned at the manor as soon as possible (resulting in a few mangled flashbacks), where she receives a true education on status when she can’t afford a more luxurious vacation package. The artificiality of the getaway is adequately executed, finding the ladies (joined by Amelia, played by Georgia King) charmed by their scripted male suitors, going on stuffed pheasant hunts, and practicing needlepoint for hours. Hess achieves the sting of disappointment when gender roles of the era are strictly adhered to in Austenland, but instead of tracking that enticing reality to its natural conclusion, she sticks with romantic complications, attempting to trick the audience into buying a love triangle featuring Jane, Mr. Nobley, and Martin, with the lowly employee tempting the lady with a pond-side picnic and a chance to witness the birth of a horse. The final destination of this conflict is too predictable, too slavish to Austen’s actual plotting to make its gooey impression. However, that doesn’t stop Hess from trying to sell the obvious, and in a most obnoxious manner at times.

Co-star Coolidge is a major setback for “Austenland.” Normally a fine comedienne with a funky sense of humor, Coolidge goes nuclear with her depiction of Elizabeth’s warm stupidity, portraying the daffy rich woman as an abrasive goon. Hess is permissive with the actress, allowing her to bellow punchlines and mug until her laugh lines bleed, and the performance prevents the picture from finding a subtler side to screen events. Callis and King are far more effective with their displays of ham, yet Coolidge is awfully persistent, transforming her scenes into a cartoon that doesn’t fit the tone of the movie.

“Austenland” is clunky, though there are a few highlights that hint at what the film might’ve been without Hess’s leaden touch. The picture doesn’t even land a proper ending, an Austen specialty, fumbling around with break-up-to-make-up conventions without ever stopping to make sure Mr. Nobley and Martin are worth the swoon. They’re not, but a lack of romantic heft is the least of the problems this disappointing feature has to conquer.

Starring: Keri Russell, JJ Feild, Jennifer Coolidge, Bret McKenzie, James Callis, Georgia King
Director: Jerusha Hess

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