Austenland (An Antidote to Gentlemen Broncos)

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Jane Hayes (Keri Russell) has dedicated so much of her fantasy life to the lessons of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice she’s blind to her arrested development. When she learns there’s a Regency Manor in England offering costumed live action role-playing for Austenites, she sells her car and hands over her savings for an immersion in make-believe. She realizes living the dream will force her to relinquish it, but she’s thrilled anyway. She knows Austen’s stories weren’t just social commentaries, they were romances, and that means the theme park experience of Austenland has a discernible endgame—one she hopes involves Mr. Darcy.

Neither Jane nor the audience gets a real immersion though; instead every level of playacting involved in Jane’s high-maintenance holiday gets a moment of attention. To remind us it’s foolhardy to get attached, Hess favorite Jennifer Coolidge plays an American loudmouth who didn’t do the reading. Her accent goes from Australian to pirate in six seconds and the paid cast members sidestep her errors like turds on a hunting green; her dumbness undermines any chance the Regency illusion has to blossom. If only it were funnier. Thereafter the layers of performance grow more confusing and oppressive. Our opportunity to interpret the sincerity of the budding bonds between people unclearly demarcated as “guest” or “employee” are stolen by a PETA-approved “hunt,” an un-costumed visit to the casts’ green room and an all-hands-on-deck play performance (written by the scene-stealing Head Mistress Jane Seymore).

Based on the popular novel by Sharon Hale, Austenland is Jerusha Hess' directorial debut. Her previous works are collaborations with her husband, Jared Hess, and decidedly more masculine in nature (Nacho Libre, Gentlemen Broncos). One can’t help sensing a relationship between this film and the team’s other projects—not in the brand of comedy so much as in a broader world view. Austenland explores Austen’s comments on the charades of polite society as well as women’s attachments to the men of chivalry that social order supposedly cultivated. There’s a subtext here that the destruction of those social practices allowed the good men of the world to be scattered like seeds, no longer available for well-heeled women to pluck from parlors. But if Napoleon Dynamite is a romantically eligible reality, damn straight we need Austenland.

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