Sundance 2013: ‘Austenland’ uproariously revels in the romance of obsession
Directed by Jerusha Hess
Written by Jerusha Hess
From the co-writer of Napoleon Dynamite, Gentlemen Broncos and Nacho Libre comes another venture into the bizarre. Don’t dismiss this project because Jerusha Hess collaborated with Twilight writer and fellow Mormon Stephanie Meyer. Yes, this is a romance, but there are no traces of sparkling vampires. The dialogue delights with abrupt silliness and veers into the unexpected. Fed up with the gross misconduct of men in the modern age, Jane (Felicity’s Keri Russell) uses her life savings to escape a mundane desk job and disappear for a short time into an immersive Jane Austen role playing experience. Having memorized the first three chapters of Pride and Prejudice and saying she knows the book “intimately,” Jane believes that this will literally make her dreams come true. Despite the objections of her grounded best friend, the travel agent sells Jane on the trip as a “LC” – otherwise known as a life changer.
Keri Russell has never seemed more congenial or vulnerable. This time Hess tones down the oddities just enough so that some relatability can shine through. The characters don’t have to be normal in any sense, but are a bit moreso than the cartoonish caricatures from Napoleon or Nacho. Based upon the novel by Shannon Hale, fans of Jane Austen (or “Janeites”) will be sure to find it rife with references to archetypes of their favourite Pride & Prejudice’s characters. An assortment of wacky co-stars including the likes of Bret McKenzie (Flight of the Conchords) and Jennifer Coolidge (Best in Show) join our Mr. Darcy-obsessed heroine.
Demurely focused on a kind of chivalry that no longer exists, Russell plays innocence and girlish excitement excellently. Coolidge, who can sometimes border on the annoying and grotesque, is pitch perfect as a rich woman with no knowledge of Austen or Britain besides the vague notion that they are supposed to be classy. McKenzie’s blue collar charm provides a real romantic alternative to Jane’s fake regal suitors on the Austen compound. He plays the menial labor roles in the stables around the Regency era estate and immediately notices that Jane is different from the other women who seek fulfillment through fantasy there. But is the actor who plays the sullen Mr.Darcy-esque role really falling in love with her? Armed with the critical eye of the seasoned Austen reader, Jane is gradually able to pick apart the multitude of men now interested in her, even in the face of rain soaked horse outings, sunny picnics and seductive boat rides. Being swept off her feet by a respectful, dashing man has always been something that she’s wanted but she doesn’t truly desire it to be built on lies, or for love to revert to being something intangible when she has to go home.
What is important to consider when evaluating Jane’s goals is that although she has fully been centered on getting a man to make her happy at least there is a realization that she wants someone who is more than obsession or fantasy- a man who can genuinely love her back without playing a part. The line between acting and true sentiment in the role playing experience becomes blurred and rings some authentic notes of suspense.
Compared to Jane, the other characters are in much more need of a reality check. Jane is able to elucidate the situation and know what she has paid for. The actors are for the most part self-obsessed and unconcerned about real love outside of their duties. With this knowledge and hard won confidence Jane is able to triumphantly take control and come into her own. Will this make her vacation or life complete? Hess’s Austenland uses the preposterous to sweet ends and leaves us to contemplate that you can’t make people fit into your fantasies. Sometimes, though, one’s strange and all consuming obsessions can become an arsenal against the cynical aspects of the outside world.