Austenland: Just plain bad
Shannon Hale’s Austenland is not a great work of literature: it’s a mildly entertaining beach read with a cute romantic denouement. The movie version could have been a sweet, funny summertime romantic comedy, something for us girls to see while the menfolk were occupied with “Boys Blowing Things Up, Part VIII.” Much though my little feminist heart longs to support Austenland as a rare, female-centric movie – producer Stephenie (Twilight) Meyer noted in a Hollywood Reporter interview that it's “based on a novel by a woman, scripted by women, produced by women, directed by a woman and starring a woman” -- honesty compels me to report that it's appalling. It’s not bad like a guilty pleasure, or bad like an interesting experiment gone wrong, or even so-bad-it’s-good. It’s just bad – unfunny, unsexy, and uninterested in any of the real questions that its story might raise about women, romantic fantasy, and Jane Austen’s relationship to both.
Like the book, the movie centers on a thirty-something singleton named Jane Hayes (Keri Russell) whose romantic life to date has fallen far short of the ideal – an ideal that, for Jane, is pretty much summed up by the Colin-Firth-in-a-wet-shirt clip from the BBC’s 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. In Hale’s book, the heroine acknowledges that the cinematic version of Austen, “stripped of Austen’s funny, insightful, biting narrator,” is something quite different from Austen herself, but the movie elides this distinction. Books, films, life-size Colin Firth cutout: they’re all part of the same fantasy package, although exactly what it is that appeals to Jane about this fantasy is never made clear. In any case, she's soon off to England for an expensive stay at Austenland, a Regency house-party immersion experience, complete with Empire-waist gowns, handsome suitors in knee breeches, and. . . well, that’s pretty much it, really, since the immersion doesn’t require guests to miss out on modern-day plumbing, and only lip service is paid to the demands of Regency manners. One moment, the matron of the place (Jane Seymour) is instructing her charges that men and women may not touch; the next, her houseguests are taking every opportunity to oh-so-casually pat the shoulders, arms, and manly chests of the actors playing the beefcake roles. This is a Regency immersion in which women smoke and shoot as well as ply their needles. In other words, it’s a mishmash that wouldn’t appeal to anyone who was actually obsessed with recreating the manners of Austen’s time – but that kind of precision is lost here. Really, it’s hard to know who this movie is supposed to appeal to. Sony Pictures Classics promoted it as a girls’-night-out special, holding women-only screenings and pitching female journalists, but the movie’s unsubtle humor seems more appropriate to a twelve-year-old-boy demographic, with multiple jokes about -- wink, wink, nudge, nudge -- breasts (big or small? Real or fake?) Russell and JJ Feild, who plays the non-cutout version of Mr. Darcy, are capable actors, albeit with zero romantic chemistry, and when the frantic slapstick subsides long enough to give them a quiet scene together, the movie stops being terrible and simply becomes not very good. Not very good because at every point, the script sidesteps the significant issues lurking on the margins: for instance, the distasteful implications of a house party where the female guests pay to be romanced by men who are just pretending (Regency gigolo, anyone?), or the questions about female desire and agency that the plotline raises. This is, after all, a story about a woman who longs for the romantic template of a pre-feminist world -- and uses the money she’s earned in her work life to satisfy that longing. What to make of that contradiction? Austenland isn’t going to tell you.