Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Miniseries Review - Lost in Austen

Lost in Austen
Release Date: September 3rd-24th, 2008
Starring: Jemima Rooper, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Daniel Percival, Gemma Arterton, Hugh Bonneville, Alex Kingston, Morven Christie, Ruby Bentall, Florence Hoath, Perdita Weeks, Michelle Duncan, Guy Henry, Tom Mison, Christina Cole, Elliot Cowan, Genevieve Gaunt, Rae Kelly Hill, and Lindsay Duncan
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

Amanda Price is sick of the crassness and just general lack of manners in the modern world. Therefore whenever she can she escapes into the genteel world Jane Austen created in Pride and Prejudice. After a particularly unromantic proposal from her boyfriend the unexpected happens; Lizzy Bennet appears in her bathroom. At first she thinks she's gone mad, but Lizzy soon returns and is quick to enter Amanda's world while Amanda takes her place in the Bennet household. Though with Lizzy absent things quickly start to go awry. Mr. Bingley doesn't fall immediately for Jane and instead fixes his amorous attentions on Amanda. Amanda, being a true fan of the book, tries her hardest to right this wrong, even claiming she is a lesbian in order to unite the destined lovers. Amanda can see her presence is a baffling imposition and her "gifts" of insight after years of reading their story confuses all the characters around her. But she is determined to keep the story on it's track. Lizzy will return and marry Mr. Darcy and everything will be fine. Amanda meanwhile just has to not fall for the man she's been fantasizing about since she was twelve. And at first this is very easy. Darcy knows that there's something not right about Miss Price. She's forward, she's awkward, she's everything that he should be against, and yet, she's the one he wants to dance with. She's the one he's drawn to. But Amanda couldn't ruin the happily ever after of all happily ever afters could she? It's her duty as a fan of Jane Austen to live within the narrative as best she can. But what happens when the characters become real humans to her and love becomes the most important thing of all? 

If one looks at the fandom surrounding Jane Austen, the festivals in full costume, the balls recreated down to the tiniest details, it's clear that the greatest dream of any Janeite would be to find their way into one of her books. This would be the greatest wish fulfillment ever and that is what we get with Lost in Austen. Amanda Price as our avatar has stumbled upon this magical portal in her bathroom and what results is a trip down the rabbit role via Jasper Fforde and the cupboard to Narnia. Amanda gets the chance at catching Mr. Darcy, a dream that every girl for over two hundred years has dreamt upon picking up Pride and Prejudice. But what's so interesting about Lost in Austen is that Amanda is such a fangirl that while she is living her dream she is also trying to maintain the story's narrative. She is almost completely selfless as she keeps trying to keep everything intact while Lizzy is absent. All the while she is fighting her feelings for Darcy. Amanda is at sea when meeting the man she's loved since she was twelve. All these emotions coupled with knowing he is meant for a woman he has never met give us the pull on our heartstrings that the original story does, maintaining the "will they won't they" that is so necessary in keeping the narrative moving. Just like Lizzy she is fighting against what she really wants, and in the process this brassy and bolshy Brit wins our heart as well as Darcy's. When she gives in to her feelings it is sublime, because as Lady Catherine said, perhaps she was too scared to admit what she really wanted, and what Amanda really wanted, despite every instinct in her Pride and Prejudice loving body, was Darcy for herself.

This what-if story is so meta and so wonderful each time I watch it something else catches my eye. It's digging fully into the story that Austen wrote while also playing with every fangirl fantasy or idea that has been posited in two hundred years. Think of not just all the adaptations to film and stage over the years of Austen's work, think of all the alternative tellings, the retellings, the what-ifs, the and-thens, the fanfic, all of it, and yet somehow Lost in Austen found a unique and new story. This takes the characters as we know and love them and throws them on their heads. Some changes are purely for comedic value, such as Caroline Bingley's sapphic interests, others are more poignant, such as the true worth of Mr. Wickham, while still adhering to the strict narrative Austen wrote. Yet what I find most fascinating is that while you could spend years arguing who the "pride" and who the "prejudice" refer to among our hero and heroine, with Amanda we are given a character who has these faults as well. Because Amanda is belabored with her preconceptions of years of escaping into the pages of Pride and Prejudice. She sees the characters as Austen wrote them not thinking that they would have a life beyond the confines of the story. I often wonder when I'm not reading a book if the characters are just all sitting around waiting for me to read them so they can say their lines and act out the scenes or if perhaps they're off somewhere else having a good time until I come and force them into their proscribed roles. Here they are very much off having fun. They have unexpected first names, character traits that one would never expect, and most of all, even more humanity than you'd think a character out of a book could possess. And this throws Amanda for a loop. She is constantly fighting an uphill battle between what she expects, what should be, and what is, and I loved every second of it.       

Yet oddly enough it's Elizabeth Bennet that effects the story the most because of her absence. Pride and Prejudice without Elizabeth Bennet is almost like chaos theory in action. Yes, it's not the dire situation that Jasper Fforde shows in his first Thursday Next book, The Eyre Affair, because Jane Eyre is nothing without it's narrator, whereas without Elizabeth Bennet there are still enough characters to make up a story, it's just a very different one. Because Lizzy is the vibrant core of Pride and Prejudice, always keeping everyone in line with an arched eyebrow or a well placed smile. Without her everything is off, everyone feels off and comments on her absence being so unlike her. And that is my one problem with Lost in Austen, Lizzy leaving. Yes, there is a mutual need that Amanda and Lizzy feel for each other, a desire to be in the others place in some version of Freaky Friday, yet I think Lizzy's need is out of character. Yes, she would fare very well in our modern times, yet she is about family and loyalty and caring for those she loves. How can she justify just leaving them behind and throwing Amanda in their place? I seriously don't get it. As I've said before the adaptation is all about exploring the way the characters are different outside the lines that Austen has drawn for us yet with Lizzy it's like her lines were erased and an entirely new character who is more than a little selfish was drawn in her place. In her modern life she's a nanny and taking care of a family, so why would she take care of this family and not her own? Later when she is able to discuss things with her father it makes a little more sense, but up until then I just don't feel Lizzy's presence. And perhaps they did this on purpose, because if Lizzy were truly herself you'd never root for Amanda and Darcy. But still, my heart breaks for Charlotte Lucas.     

But, much like Pride and Prejudice, this adaptation is a fine balance of comedy with the obligatory ripping out of your heart and gleefully trampling on it. The modern Amanda and her clashes with what the past lacks, especially in regard to dental health, is where the comedy really lies for the first two episodes. Her observations on things she would have never guessed at, like how revolting Mr. Collins really is, or how her randomly misplaced modern vernacular would effect Lydia, or how, like in Austenland, the only song she can perform is wonderfully modern and anachronistic, this are comedic highlights. Yet as the adaptation proceeds the comedy gives way to the heartfelt. The stark truths, such as Darcy having to marry a virgin, and what happens when Bingley becomes unhinged because of Jane's fate. Also, the knowing how it's supposed to be versus what it has become isn't just a thorn in Amanda's side but a knife to the heart. The scene where Jane pleads with Bingley to be happy for the both of them because she never will be, I dare you not to ugly cry. Lost in Austen taps into those universal truths of love and despair that Austen herself wrote about and that makes this adaptation shine. It is so different from Austen, it takes such liberties, and I know this might annoy some viewers, but down in it's bones it shares the same DNA. But I wouldn't expect anything less from the writer, Guy Andrews, looking at his track record he has worked on some of my favorite British shows, but most importantly is Blandings. This was adapted from the Blandings books by P.G. Wodehouse and shows a similar comedic base that taps into true feeling while also strongly hinging on nostalgia.

Though I must sadly end in a rant. This rant has to do with the DVD release. As you have obviously read here on my blog I have issues with substandard releases. What I want is the show as it originally aired in the best quality possible preferably in a really pretty package. That's why I actually am advising you to not buy this release because it is not complete. As anyone who pays attention to DVD releases knows one of the hardest things is licensing of music. I'm not talking about music written for the show but the popular songs and standards that appear in it. Look to the TV show Freaks and Geeks. The DVD release was delayed years because they refused to release the show in any format other than the one that aired, and hence I was a happy camper when I bought my DVD set and all the beloved eighties songs were there. Other shows take a more lackadaisical approach. Look to Northern Exposure, a show which was lauded for it's use of music when it aired and yet the DVD sets, well, the music is noticeably absent and filler music is used, thus making the show less than. Other shows that I've long awaited like Ashes to Ashes I have a feeling will never be released in the US because of the copious amount of eighties songs used and yet I couldn't buy the set unless ever single song was there because it wouldn't be the same. Two of the best jokes in Lost in Austen are destroyed because of these omissions on the DVD. The first is just a quick side joke in that Amanda's ring tone is the theme from the Andrew Davies adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. But the second is a more egregious error. When Amanda is asked to sing she sings Petula Clark's "Downtown." Yes, it's very funny and watching the DVD when it skips from Amanda being asked to sing to the party at Netherfield Park clapping for her I was taken aback. It's not just the removal of this hilarious scene but what the song comes to mean, especially for Bingley in his search for peace after losing Jane that makes the removal unconscionable. Of course there's still time to fix this... just a nice BluRay release, song intact. That's all I ask for. Please?


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