Young Jane Hayes (Keri Russell) is a fanatic of the works of nineteenth century author Jane Austen. Her bedroom is cluttered from top to bottom with artifacts of the Austen era. There’s even a cardboard cutout of Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy in the corner of the room and a sign above her bed that reads Darcy Was Here. Jane Hayes is a hopeless, nineteenth century romantic.
In the pleasant new comedy Austenland, based on the Shannon Hale novel of the same name, Jane Hayes saves enough money to buy a trip to England to visit a resort where women can indulge their Austen fantasies and immerse themselves in a mockup of the era. Handsome actors are hired to wander the halls of the stately home to entertain and ‘court’ the vacationing ladies. As Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour) explains, to the new arrivals, the ladies can experience romance with one of the actors, but like a Las Vegas lap dance, there’s “… No touching.”
“Well, smother me in butter and drop me in a saucepan,” says one of the male actors in full period costume as he enters a hall with all the ladies.
Keri Russell plays Jane Hayes and she’s right for the role. Russell shot to fame with TV’s teenage drama Felicity in the late nineties. While she’s enjoyed a fairly long and lucrative career, and despite a good performance in Waitress in 2007, it’s only now that she comes across as a fully rounded performer. Her once flat sounding voice now has expression and she’s no longer coasting on looks and long, curly hair. She’s arrived. As Jane Hayes, Russell has created a character of such warmth and immense likeability, it’s surprising that not every pretend Austen actor in the stately home doesn’t fall for her.
The film is a lot funnier than expected. I’m told that the Shannon Hale novel concentrates more on the romance than the humor, but the film is going for the laughs, and it succeeds by constantly amusing from the beginning. Most of those laughs come in the shape of Jennifer Coolidge who arrives at the resort from America at the same time Russell arrives. “I can’t understand what the natives say,” Coolidge states at the airport, then proceeds to speak in a form of English cockney that comes straight out of the Dick Van Dyke school of English accents. “Oh, look,” her character insists as an old fashioned car arrives to pick them up. “They’ve even got us a car from the eighteenth century!”
Despite the historic period with which the vacationers are supposed to be immersing themselves, the film has a lively pop/rock music soundtrack that accompanies the surprisingly lavish, widescreen visuals. It’s like listening to selections from an adult contemporary format on FM. When Russell’s initial dream of arriving in London finally comes true, Belinda Carlisle’s Heaven Is A Place on Earth plays, and when Russell’s character later decides to take charge of her own story by becoming the center of attention, a remix of Kim Carnes’ Bette Davis Eyes plays complementing Russell’s flirtatious moves around the room.
To add to the musical fun, there’s even a lively and humorous music video performed by the cast during the closing credits to Nelly’s Hot In Herre. Because there have been so many of them in the past, outtakes and bloopers played during the end credits of a film have developed into something of a desperate act by movie makers to liven up a comedy as you leave the theatre in the hope you’ll remember the film being funnier than it really was. Having the cast in full period costume perform hip hop as the credits roll at the end of Austenland might seem completely out of left field, but it works in the context of the film’s overall silliness and good humor, and if it does anything it gives us the pleasure of being in the company of this agreeable ensemble for just a few minutes longer.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 97 Minutes Overall Rating: 7 (out of 10)