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Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013

Austenland

A romantic, comedic getaway for Jane Austen fans

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Do romance fantasies make promises reality can never keep? Austenland wavers between dismissing and embracing the daydreaming, fantasy allure of the world’s toniest romance writer, Jane Austen. Perhaps the film’s refusal to go with “either or” is a mark of insight? Dreams occasionally come true, after all.

Our protagonist, Jane Hayes (Keri Russell), is both a casualty of Austen fandom and a walking endorsement for the undying appeal of Mr. Darcy. She drinks from her own china teacup at coffee shops, papers the walls of her flat in floral patterns and drives away make-out-minded boyfriends by insisting on watching Pride and Prejudice from the couch. And yes, on the other hand, the guys she has met are jerks, crude and idiotic compared with the witty charmers promenading in embroidered waistcoats through the candle-lit salons of her favorite novels.

Jane succumbs to the temptation of fantasy transformed into brick and mortar and flesh: an expensive vacation to the “Austenland” resort for “an Austen experience,” described by the travel agent as “LC”—a “life changer.” The resort is appropriately housed on a National Trust estate in England, a country where facets of the Regency era continue to shine in the Internet age. With Masterpiece Theatre trumpet fanfares setting the tone, Jane prepares for her life-changing encounter with its promise of finding her perfect Darcy. Alas, the “Copper Level” package she purchased lacks the amenities of the still-more-expensive “Platinum Level.” Relegated to servants’ quarters, Jane is introduced in this role-playing game (full costumes and appropriate speech are de rigueur) as “an unfortunate orphan,” no doubt an impoverished distant relation of country house gentry.

Directed by Jerusha Hess (Napoleon Dynamite), Austenland is an amusing concept but elicits fewer laughs than its screenwriters intended. A touch of madcap would enliven this comedy of manners mismatched with the 21st century. The setting certainly provides many opportunities for mirth, as the resort’s façade of period accuracy proves a brittle veneer. Despite the unctuous owner’s injunction to “eschew all things modern” (including smart phones), she announces activities in the drawing room over a public address system.

Earnest Jane is paired with a comic relief fellow vacationer, Elizabeth Charming (Jennifer Coolidge), a blousy, overweight American who knows nothing of Jane Austen beyond bodices and handsome suitors, and affects a fish-and-chips accent that’s more Eliza Doolittle than Elizabeth Bennet. Romance presents itself in the form of the sweet-tempered, soulful servant Martin (Bret McKenzie) and the brusque, sulking Nobely (J.J. Feild), members of the in-house crew of period-costumed actors who provide the resort’s guests with an often less-than-perfect immersion in Sense and Sensibility.

Will Jane return home with the Darcy of her dreams? Do storybook endings come true, especially in the movies?

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