Gentlemen, just trust me: there is something inherently magical about Jane Austen. So much so, in fact, that devotees clamor for anything that relates to her canon. What luck that Jerusha Hess’s Austenland offers a new bon bon, and a delectable one at that.
Jane Hayes (Russell) read Pride & Prejudice as a girl, and it warped her ever since. Homesick for a time and place that she only finds in books, she peppers her life with the touches of the Anglophile. Her American apartment bears print wallpaper, shelves of teapots, and old editions of novels. Her thoroughly modern best friend is exasperated by her inability to live in the present. So is her boyfriend, who unceremoniously punches the head off her Mr. Darcy cardboard cutout.
At “30+”, Jane decides to embark on a life changing trip: an immersive time period vacation at Austenland. Run by the shrewd Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Seymour), the English resort provides a dream—a sprawling estate, immaculate gardens, opulent Regency furnishings, and best of all, a cast of attractive actors reminiscent of familiar Austen characters to simulate a romantic drama in which the guests star.
And what a cast they are. In addition to Lady Wattlesbrook and her curmudgeonly husband, four “eligible” bachelors roam the grounds, including a giddily foppish colonel (Callis), a strapping sea captain (Whittle), a handsome, yet reserved aristocrat (Feild), and an irreverent groundskeeper, Martin (McKenzie).
Two other guests, given pseudonyms by Lady Wattlesbrook, join the party. “Miss Charming” (Coolidge) is a gregarious but crass American; “Lady Amelia Heartwright” (King) is a beautiful but catty rival. Despite appallingly fake accents, numerous vulgarities, and a tendency to treat the actors like their personal man meat, the duo finds themselves fawned over by their hosts because they purchased the Platinum experience. Jane, dubbed “Miss Erstwhile,” has the economical Copper plan, which entitles her to a meager room in the servant’s quarters, the plainest of dresses, and a seat on the tailgate of the carriage—a clever nod to the social and economic divides of Old Britain’s class system.
Like Elizabeth Bennett, Jane rises above the condescension with grace and wit, though she often escapes the household to seek the company of working class Martin, who mocks the pretense of the place. For Jane, the “Mr. Darcy dream” embodies more than a handsome, rich man sweeping a girl off her feet. It’s about finding a good man, one of substance and character, who has the ability to recognize the qualities of a good woman. As the lines between fantasy and reality blur, Jane finds herself increasingly torn between the feigned attentions of the perfect Mr. Nobly and the real world promise of Martin.
The movie delights. Keri Russell effortlessly portrays Jane, infusing her with both wistfulness and modern edge. Coolidge and King outdo each other with their farcical pomposity, and Callis chews the scenery with wild abandon. Fields nails reserved intensity, and a surprising McKenzie (of Flight of the Concords fame) cuts a fine figure as a leading man. The story draws upon Pride & Prejudice for inspiration, yet delivers a fresh and unexpected twist—no small feat, when the source material is so well known. Hess offers a wry, modernized take on a perennial favorite, and indeed, it is catnip for the ovaries.