Review: Austenland

With Napoleon Dynamite writer Jerusha Hess behind the camera, Austenland seems slightly more interesting than your average romantic-comedy – and fortunately it is. Hess has crafted a feature packed with campy British charm that is likely to become a cult-favourite.

Jane Hayes (Keri Russell), a woman infatuated with Jane Austen travels to England for a holiday experience at Austenland. Here she becomes the heroine in her own Austen-esque tale and aims to find her own Mr. Darcy, however the lines between reality and fiction soon begin to blur.

Hess and Shannon Hale’s screenplay does a solid job at flipping traditional romantic comedy expectations and conventions. This is mainly done through the setting of Austenland – a holiday experience where actors are paid to fulfil certain roles – ie. JJ Feild as Mr. Nobley, a Mr. Darcy like character. This format means we are never quite sure whether any of the romances in Austenland are real or simply part of a performance. This results in an original watch, with more depth than standard genre-fare.

Given Hess’s background you can expect a variety of unconventional quirkiness in Austenland. Filled with intentionally hammy British accents, the costumes and decadence of the Austen-era, and behind-the-scenes camp (mainly seeing the Austenland experience actors out of character) – Hess has crafted a likeable watch packed with character and brash fun. A soundtrack featuring British pop classics like Bucks Fizz’s The Land of Make Believe and Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart adds to this rich quirky aesthetic of Hess’s directorial debut.

Whilst Keri Russell’s Jane Hayes is a somewhat linear character who experiences a transformation that is standard of the chick-flick – it is hard to deny the warmth and likeability that she brings to Austenland. The ordinary American girl in Austenland (essentially Downton Abbey on steroids) brings some fun fish out of water moments to the film, but these are ultimately eclipsed by the comic might of supporting player Jennifer Coolidge as Miss Elizabeth Charming.

Coolidge commands the screen as Miss Charming – a role so camp, over-the-top and brash that she dominates Austenland. Charming is the modern equivalent of the buxom and flamboyantly over-sexed Carry On character who delivers some of the most bizarre laugh-out-loud moments of the feature. A sequence where Coolidge’s Miss Charming discusses how her skin looks good is outrageously amusing.

It is also a pleasure to see Jane Seymour back on the big-screen as bitchy headmistress-type figure Mrs. Wattlesbrook, whilst Bret McEnzie, Ricky Whittle, and JJ Feild aptly slip into the romantic male leads. The New Normal’s Georgia King and James Callis deliver a further sense of camp as the dreadfully posh Lady Amelia Heartwright and Colonel Andrews – both responsible for many of the film’s standout gags.

For those willing to embrace the over-the-top camp and quirky charm of Hess’s debut, Austenland is one of the most entertaining comedies of the year. Several in-on-the-joke hammy performances add to the fun – most notably a comic tour de force from the divine Jennifer Coolidge.


Originally posted on The People's Movies.
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