Oh Mr. Darcy. He’s certainly the most popular period drama hero, and not just the ones from Jane Austen’s imagination, mind you. Even those who don’t care for this genre would probably know who Mr. Darcy is, though they might confuse him with the one in Bridget Jones’ Diary, ahah. Now, he’s not exactly my favorite Austen hero, but I find stories about girls being obsessed with him so wildly amusing. I saw the miniseries Lost in Austen not too long ago and it might as well be called Lost in Darcy. Despite the similar theme, Austenland is not a fantastical tale where the characters from Pride & Prejudice actually comes to life. The title refers to a Disneyland of sort for the Austen-obsessed, as the ad says, the resort in a lush English countryside offers the world’s only immersive Jane Austen experience.
Keri Russell plays Jane Hayes, an Austen superfan whose obsession with Mr. Darcy practically takes over her day-to-day life. Her apartment rivals even the Austen museum I went to in Bath, complete with a cardboard cutout of Mr. Darcy in her living room. Her love life suffers not for lack of suitors, but it’s just the modern guys just can’t possibly live up to a dashing literary hero. I always remember the quote from the Sabrina remake of 1995: Illusions are dangerous people, they have no flaws. Thus, when an opportunity suddenly presents itself for Jane to actually live out her fantasy, naturally she jumps at the chance.
Hilarity ensues almost straight away. From the moment Jane steps out in her empire-waisted dress and bonnet her best friend gifted her just for the occasion, she draws giggles and stares as she makes her way through the airport. Then she meets a wealthy American woman (later known as Elizabeth Charming, her pseudonym at the resort) who apparently never read Austen but signs up for the trip because she knows she’d look good in those ‘wench dresses.’ Both girls are so in for a treat, or so it seems. No more ‘unlucky in love’, the owner of the Regency era resort (a bitchy Jane Seymour) promises her vacationing guests that their romantic fantasies would come true at the end of their trip, courtesy of the handsome actors on her staff.
Sadly, Jane (or Miss Erstwhile, her given pseudonym at the resort), has unknowingly bought the Copper package, even though she’s cashed out all her savings for this trip! So poor Jane gets the dowdy clothes and her room is in the servants wing. But she’s determined not to let that ruin her trip. In no time, Jane gets entangled with one of the staff-members Martin, who actually wasn’t hired to do the ‘oldies’ stuff, that is to pretend to be from the Austen era to woo the guests. But just as she’s fallen for Martin, the resort’s designated Mr. Darcy (aptly named Henry Nobly) provides a delightful distraction. Everyone is not who they say they are, and the characters are caught between fantasy and reality. Just like what you’d expect in a real Austen story, there are misunderstandings, romantic disenchantments, and of course, the vice of preconceived notions. But hilarity is never far behind. I love how hysterical this movie is, there’s thigh-slapping moments from start to finish and I could tell the whole theater was having a blast along with me.
Jerusha Hess, who’s no stranger to writing comedies (Napoleon Dynamite, Gentleman’s Bronchos and Nacho Libre), tackled the writing and directing task for this one. She co-wrote this film with Shannon Hale, who wrote the novel of the same name where this movie is based on. I think they did a fine job in delivering an amusing escapism, funny without being mean-spirited. There’s a lot of laughs to be had here, but romance is still in the air and the cast is quite charming. I think the tone is more Emma than Sense & Sensibility, so by no means it’s not a deep movie nor is it trying to be.
I don’t normally see Keri Russell in a comedic role, but ever since Waitress, I knew she has a decent comic timing. Here she portrays the awkward and starry-eyed protagonist believably, even if she might be too pretty in the role, just as Keira Knightley was as Elizabeth Bennett in the 2005’s Joe Wright’s adaptation. One thing for sure she’s instantly likable, so it was easy to root for her character, no matter how absurd.
Jennifer Coolidge is her usual hilarious bawdy self. Her blatant ignorance of anything Austen (or the Regency era for that matter) and her riotous attempt at a British accent never fails to draw uproarious laughter. She’s a natural comic actress who doesn’t even need to open her mouth to be funny, so of course she steals scenes in more than one occasions. James Callis (who’ll always be Battlestar Galactica‘s Gaius Balthar to me) provides comic relief as the flamboyant Col. Andrews who’s the object of Coolidge’s Elizabeth Charming’s affections. Hunky Ricky Whittle and fellow Brit Georgia King also provide memorable supporting turns in some of the funniest bits of the movie.
JJ Feild, once an Austen hero himself in Northanger Abbey, is suitably sullen as Mr. Nobly. He provides a nice contrast to the more outwardly flirtatious Martin (the Mr. Wickham in the story). I’m surprised to learn that Bret McKenzie who played Martin is the same guy who plays the elf Lindir in The Lord of the Rings & The Hobbit, AND he’s also the songwriter who won an Oscar for Best Song for The Muppets! Wow, no wonder he looked familiar but I couldn’t put my finger on it where I had seen him!
Final Thoughts: I really enjoyed this one, it’s perhaps one of the most fun I had at the movies of late. I also appreciate the scenery and gorgeous set pieces/costumes. I don’t even mind the mindless slapstick stuff, especially in the farcical mock-theater scene towards the end. There are some cringe-worthy moments and use of vintage pop songs don’t always work well, but it’s hard not to be swept away by its buoyant spirits. The romance might be predictable, but it’s certainly not without its giddy charm. Certainly period drama fans would get a kick out of this movie, but even if you’re not, I’d say there’s enough going for it here to keep you amused and entertained.