Friday, August 11, 2017

Movie Review - Austenland

Based on the book by Shannon Hale
Release Date: August 16th, 2013
Starring: Keri Russell, J.J. Feild, Bret McKenzie, James Callis, Jennifer Coolidge, Georgia King, Ricky Whittle, Rupert Vansittart and Jane Seymour
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

Jane Hayes has had it with her modern life of lewd men who lack manners. She wants to go back to the time of her favorite author, Jane Austen. Luckily for her, if not her bank account, there's Austenland, which caters to those who have a similar inclination, one might say fervor. She puts all her money on this last ditch attempt to find some happiness, or, as her friend Molly says, as a way to cure her of her obsession once and for all. She is greeted by the discovery that all her savings only bought her the copper package and her fellow female guests are given better rooms, better clothes, and better options. Jane becomes Miss Erstwhile and is soon turning away from the cold glances of Mr. Nobly and the other men whom are assigned to others and is cavorting with the servants, mainly the rather easy on the eyes Martin, who also has a taste in easy listening music. But Jane realizes that this "relationship" with Martin is just another way to step away from her life and she makes a decision. Austenland will cure her of happily ever afters and she is going to take control of her narrative. She decides that before she leaves she will become "engaged" to the man of her dreams, her own assigned Mr. Darcy, and move on. But what if her Mr. Darcy wasn't acting? What if she has bewitched Mr. Nobly and instead of a drastic cure she could come away from Austenland with her very own happily ever after?

If given half a chance I don't think there's any Janeite out there who wouldn't jump at the chance to vacation in the world of her novels. It's like Westworld but with parasols instead of pistols, unless you're watching the season seven Austen inspired episode of Red Dwarf "Beyond a Joke" and then it's both! Yet despite my love of Shannon Hale when I first read her book from which this movie is adapted I wasn't in love. Austenland was all right book wrong time and it just rubbed me the wrong way. I was like a dissatisfied cat. The joy at finding the book on my local Barnes and Noble shelves days before it's release was quickly overshadowed by my feelings after devouring it in one sitting. Like bad food it left an aftertaste I couldn't shake. I had been waiting so long for the book that I had certain expectations that couldn't possibly have been met and my dislike was almost a foregone conclusion. Luckily I was nudged into re-reading Austenland due to a well placed recommendation and the fact that a sequel was looming on the horizon. So I eventually embraced both Austenland and it's sequel Midnight in Austenland for what they were, chick lit that was subtly thumbing their noses at the Jane Austen Mafia, aka JASNA (an organization whom I have no doubt Jane wouldn't have just hated but is peopled by those she would have mercilessly parodied.)

With this new-found appreciation you can imagine that the announcement of a film adaptation was a pleasant surprise. Then when James Callis was announced, well, I started actually counting down the days to filming, then post production, then release. Once J.J. Feild was announced, I knew I was a goner. Ah J.J., you made me come to love Northanger Abbey. You and you alone! OK, the fact it's an awesome book making fun of the Gothic Genre is very important, but don't tell Jane it was really you. With each cast announcement and my mounting excitement you'd think that I was once again raising my expectations to have them shattered but that wasn't the case here! Austenland lived up to and exceeded my expectations. This movie is near perfection, but more than that it celebrates all that is Jane and is one of the funniest love letters to her you'll ever see. If Clueless and Bridget Jones's Diary had a baby who was then handed off to Monty Python for their education you'd arrive at Austenland. Even years later I can honestly say it's one of the funniest films I've ever seen and that first viewing in the theater was the hardest I'd laughed in a long time. The entire script is a goldmine of hilarious and memorable quotes. But it's not just the dialogue! The physical comedy, the subtle expressions of the actors, the sets, little things happening in every frame in the foreground and background that make repeat viewing not just a treat but a necessity to grasp the totality of not just James Callis and his constant murmurs, but of the love and talent that went into this production.

Let me break it down for you as to why this movie is just full of win. The perfect casting. Keri Russell is able to not only be the perfect surrogate, for me, the Austen loving audience member, but the chemistry with both the male leads makes for a believable and funny love triangle. Also, can we say genius casting with Bret 'Flight of the Conchords' McKenzie? But if it wasn't for the fact that every character was cast perfectly and every actor and actress seemed to be having so much fun, the three leads would not have been able to sustain the film. Then there's in-jokes of calling Bret a Hobbit reject, when everyone knows he's in ALL of The Lord of the Rings films, and Keri having hair Felicity hair in the opening flashback! As for Jennifer Coolidge, she is beyond charming, she is divine. In fact it's my firm belief that only she could be Miss Charming, and I have a sneaking suspicion that even in writing the book Shannon Hale was picturing her. And James Callis, what can I say, but I've always admired you, Bridget Jones, Battlestar, you made me want "evil" to win... you have some serious comedic talents, so while I love you in period pieces, do more movies like this! In fact, why aren't there more movies like this? With Georgia King skipping out of rooms or Ricky Whittle finding yet another way to strip off his clothing? But I must say, the casting of Mr. Wattlesbrook was by far the best. Because Mr. Wattlesbrook, aka Rupert Vansittart, aka Fatty Fat Buckle, is none other then Mr. Hurst from the 1995 Colin Firth version of Pride and Prejudice! Say what? Yes, he has cornered the market on laying about in unattractive positions proudly displaying his paunch.

Yet Mr. Wattlesbrook is also the one flaw of the film. The thing is he's a little to rapey. He's always drunk and more then handsy. He attempts to force himself on Jane thinking she's a little more lax in her morals due predominately to her piano performance and cavorting with the "staff." This is also an apparently recurring problem from what Colonel Andrews says. Yet nothing has been done about it!?! This is a thorn in the side of the movie. Why have this creepy aspect? You could say it's to get the two men to fight over Jane at the airport and to have her doubt Mr. Nobley's intentions when he shows up at her door, but I'm sure that all the people behind this clever production could have thought of a way around this. Because as it stands it trivializes a predator and for a film that is produced, written, and directed by women by not focusing on the danger this man poses it condones rape culture. Which, when you think more about it is so odd because Austenland is about female wish fulfillment, with all the men being beefcakes verging on male prostitutes, and yet there's a snake in the garden with Mr. Wattlesbrook. If there was some dire need to keep him in the narrative maybe make him a lesson in what life was like? A throwback to the times when men used their droit de seigneur? Because as it is if this aspect of him would somehow just disappear this could easily be up there with Clue and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Bridget Jones's Diary as one of my favorite films ever. I mean, as is it's so close. It's just the width of Mr. Wattlesbrook away... 

But what I found most interesting in this re-watching of Austenland was that until I was swept away by the happily ever after I found myself thinking how happy I would be just to be there in the clothes, staying in that house, and just pretending I was in Regency England. That would literally be enough for me. I don't need overly muscled men and fake fantasies, I just need the historical element. It's a lesser wish fulfillment, but a far more realistic one. In fact I'd say the stages of Jane Austen wish fulfillment would be reading all the books, then seeing all the movies, then visiting all the sights, then dressing up in costume, then finding your own Mr. Darcy would be the ultimate stage that I think many of us are grounded enough in reality to know that that is not very likely to happen. But when Jane is complaining to her friend Molly about how she thought it would be different... I think the non-deluded fan would say that Jane is getting just what they want. Which makes it interesting when Jane decides to view the whole experience as immersion therapy to get over her obsession. Yes, perhaps she did take it a little too far with the wooden letters over her bed, but what's wrong with some teacups? And I truly think a cut-out of Colin Firth could provide some much needed support in case of a burglary. I think anyone would think twice seeing his manly silhouette in a dark apartment. What all this comes down to is why hasn't someone made Austenland a real thing and how soon can I go? As you can see I, unlike some, have realistic expectations, I don't need a proposal at the ball! Though J.J. Feild would be nice...


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