Saturday, September 14, 2013

Movie Review - Austenland

I read the book Austenland about 4 years ago and generally enjoyed it. It was a whimsically fun modern take on the Jane Austen obsession that was enjoying a resurgence thanks to recently updated movie versions of Pride and Prejudice. Even though I enjoyed the book, my wife enjoyed it even more (she's recommended it to a number of friends and has also gone on to read the sequel Midnight in Austenland…which I still haven't done, though perhaps the film has jumpstarted my desire).

It was no surprise that my wife was super excited when she heard they were turning the book into a movie and that Shannon Hale would be involved in writing the screenplay (to make sure it didn't get screwed up). It had a run at the Sundance Film Festival and even though we live close, we didn't end up getting tickets. So we waited for the limited official theatrical run. Even then, it's only showing at a few local theaters and some of them have it sharing a screen with other "bigger" hits and only playing once a day. So it was pretty clear that the industry doesn't have a lot of faith in this as a money maker. Still, we picked up our tickets and went into the theater (ignoring the fact that the movie name wasn't even above the door).

The movie starts out by showcasing the obsession shown in the trailer. Our heroine Jane is thoroughly obsessed with all things Austen. While she still has a "normal" life in terms of having a job and doing some dating, the quick scenes at the start of the movie show that she is much more excited about Jane Austen's world than the world of the 21st century. The film pulls together a ton of cheesy hilarious Austen memorabilia that can be laughable individually but which comes off as somewhere between funny and sad when compounded to take up her entire room/apartment.

Enter "Austenland", a Jane Austen themed resort. Set on a large country estate in England, Austenland serves as a place for an Austen aficionado to escape the real world and become fully immersed in the world of Jane Austen. Tenants are to "eschew all things modern" and live as though they were in the Victorian era. The manor is staffed with actors dressed in period costume and versed in the etiquette and manners. The acting staff also includes a romantic partner for each vacationer. Over the course of the retreat, there will be walks in the garden, horse rides, hunting, croquet, sewing, reading and all other forms of Victorian recreation for the young well to do in Jane Austen's world.

In the book, Jane is gifted a trip to Austenland from her great aunt's will. In the movie, she actually goes and purchases the trip for herself and it was less clear what triggered the sudden desire/need to take the trip. This change did showcase the extent of her obsession since she apparently sold her car and emptied her savings to pay for the trip. Her sister acts as a good conscience trying to break Jane of the obsession and get her to be a bit more level headed. In the end, Jane goes on the trip.

At this point in the movie, the plot and scenes became a little tragically sad. The entire movie is set up as a romantic comedy and has plenty of humorous scenes, one liners and physical comedy. But as Jane arrives at Austenland and starts going through the paces, I found myself feeling rather sad for Jane and her situation. She wasn't wealthy and could only afford the "common" vacation package. As a result, her transportation, lodging and dress are reduced to lower quality than those elite who could pay the higher fare. Even beyond the sad physical accommodations Jane is socially treated as a bit of an outcast by the head of Austenland and it appears that even her "romantic role play" situation has been forgotten. Jane begins to question and regret her decision to come to Austenland. Still, she decides to persevere. As time goes on, Jane does begin to make the best of the situation and even starts to turn the situation around and starts to find potential fun and romance in the vacation. As she points out, "[She's] going to take charge of [her] story - an Austen heroine gets engaged by the end of the book and that's what [she's] going to do."

As a counterpart to Jane, there are two other women having an Austenland vacation of their own. Jane meets "Elizabeth Charming" at the airport and quickly acknowledges her as a complete caricature. She is ditzy and rich and has come on the vacation with the intent of snagging herself a man. Lady Amelia is the other woman on the trip and it's unclear as to her exact motivation. She has fully entrenched herself in the world of Austenland so much that it wasn't immediately clear if she was part of the staff or a vacationer. We quickly realize that she's vacationing as well and she is enjoying the hunt for a hunky Victorian man. While Elizabeth was ditzy, she was well intentioned and a good friend to Jane. On the other hand, Amelia was a little catty and was willing to put up with Jane so long as Jane didn't interfere with her plans to get a man. The trio of women made for some funny situational comedy.

The men on the estate seemed incorrectly balanced with the women. While there were three women vacationing, the trip initially starts out with only two gentlemen attending on them. Colonel Andrews is a silly, foppish caricature and seems to be having fun playing up his character. He's not too keen on being paired up with Elizabeth Charming, but he does his actor's duty and keeps her and the other guests adequately entertained. Henry Nobley is the other male attendant and he seems to be typecast as the "Darcy" character. He is aloof and standoffish. He seems to be merely putting up with the "game" of romance at Austenland. Amelia has paired herself up with him prior to Jane's arrival. The three-to-two ratio is part of what made the first portion of Austenland a little sad as Jane tries to suck up her disappointment and just move on with the trip even though there doesn't seem to be a man for her.

I won't spoil any more of the plot because either you're going to be interested and will go read the book or see the movie or else you're not interested at all and will just pass it by. Even if you're not terribly interested in the plot or the period romance, rest assured that there is a fair amount of modern humor and silliness (for example, when Jane is asked to play on the piano and sing…and she opts for a song by Nelly). As fans of period films and general romantic comedy, my wife and I both really enjoyed the movie. It was different from the book in a number of key ways. My wife also let me know that the ending (and the "pre-credit roll stinger") suggests that they essentially blocked themselves from making a movie of the second book (without some significant changes).

The writing was solid and funny. A lot of the jokes and scenes are predictable, but they are quite funny regardless and they are well executed. If you're a Jane Austen purist, this certainly isn't the movie for you. It strays from the original, poking fun at it but not being solely satirical as it also works to establish its own rules.

Overall this is a fun period chick-flick film that has a good balance of laughter, sorrow, broken hearts and romance. There were plenty of laugh-out-loud moments and in the end the story wraps itself up nicely and leaves you feeling alright. I'm fairly certain this one will become part of our movie collection once released to DVD and we'll be watching it with and loaning it to friends for a while to come.

4 out of 5 stars

1 comment:

Brian Miller said...

ok, dare i tell my wife about 4 stars i guess i could survive it eh? maybe even enjoy it...smiles.