In late 2022, I attended the Jane Austen Society of North America’s Annual General Meeting, held that year in Victoria, British Columbia. On the sidelines of the Saturday night ball, I met a young screenwriter who mentioned that she had just sold a project—a romantic comedy set at a Jane Austen convention.
That script, by writer Reina Hardy (read an interview with her here), made it to our TV screens over the weekend as Paging Mr. Darcy, the first in the Hallmark Channel’s four-movie “Loveuary with Jane Austen” series. Hallmark has an eight-year record of producing mediocre-to-execrable Austen-themed programming, so my hopes were, let’s say, tempered by experience. But as a committed Jane Austen video completist, I did my duty on Saturday night and settled in, notebook in hand, to watch Paging Mr. Darcy.
Shockingly, it was . . . not terrible! In places, cute and funny! With details that betokened some insidery Janeite knowledge!
Now, I don’t want to overstate my case. Paging Mr. Darcy is still a Hallmark movie, and therefore features second-rate production values, a plot that is simultaneously predictable and implausible, and a total lack of edginess. We’re not talking Citizen Kane here.
But I couldn’t help being charmed by a film that begins with our heroine, a junior scholar named Eloise (Mallory Jansen), lecturing a fellow airline passenger on the reasons Austen is not a romance novelist. (You go, girl!) And that goes on to include a scene in which Eloise objects to the widespread claim that Austen’s thwarted love for Tom Lefroy inspired her genius. Not to mention one that name-drops Mr. Beveridge’s Maggot; features a historical costumer critiquing period-inauthentic fabrics; includes a moment when a non-Janeite erroneously substitutes “Victorian” for “Regency”; and works in “I Heart Mr. Darcy” tote bags, “Straight Outta Chawton” and “I’d Rather Be at Pemberley” T-shirts, a “Mr. Darcy—Tall, Dark and Chocolate” candy bar, and ice cream flavors called Mansfield Chunk and Praline and Prejudice.
The thin story wrapped around all this plausible Janeite detail pairs Eloise with Sam (Will Kemp), the costumed Mr. Darcy at the annual conference of the “Jane Austen League of America,” which everyone calls “JALA.” Although she scorns JALA's bonnets-and-romance approach to Austen, Eloise has agreed to give the keynote speech in hopes of landing a professorship by impressing Victoria Jennings, a Princeton Austen scholar and longtime JALA attendee, who just happens to be Sam’s aunt. (Warning to all you kids at home: This is not how the academic job market works.)
The movie purports to center on the question of whether uptight Eloise can learn to allow fun and romance into her ultra-serious life, but of course this conflict is no contest at all: While Eloise briefly banters about Lydia Bennet; delivers (mostly offstage) a keynote titled “When First I Saw Pemberley: Real Estate and Cognitive Dissonance in Pride and Prejudice”; and peruses a poster, helpfully titled “Academic Talks,” that lists plausibly JASNA-esque sessions on “Regency Dueling Culture” and “Austen’s Influence on 21st-Century Feminist Literature,” Paging Mr. Darcy couldn't care less about any of that. Instead, the movie spends its time on more visually engaging staples of a JASNA—sorry, JALA—conference: dancing, costuming, crafts, and games. This being a Hallmark movie, there is also a scene in which the protagonists bond while baking cookies.
Along the way, Janeite echoes abound. The cautious, self-effacing Elinor—I mean Eloise--has an impulsive, drama-queen sister named Mia (not Marianne, but close enough) who is mired in a romantic crisis that Sam helps resolve, in classic Darcy fashion. Amateur theatricals stir up misunderstandings and jealousy, à la Mansfield Park. Sam’s aunt starts out as an intimidating Lady Catherine de Bourgh but morphs into a cuddly mentor with, in a last-minute twist, a Persuasion-reminiscent second-chance romance with Crispin Crane, an actor-turned-academic who once played Willoughby in a classic TV adaptation of Sense and Sensibility.*
For the most part, these parallels are presented with a light touch that leaves it to viewers to pick up on, or ignore, the Austenian resonances. Kemp is by far the best thing in the movie, and not only because he looks—ahem!—not unpleasing in boots and a cravat. He gives a lift to the funny lines and brings genuine feeling to the moments when vulnerability and hurt bleed through his witty mask.
All in all, kind of an enjoyable evening! Color me surprised. But not to worry: Judging from the trailers, next week’s Loveuary offering, Love & Jane, looks unpromising.