Thirty-something singleton Jane Hayes (Keri Russell) is crazy about Jane Austen. She knows her novels inside-out, keeps a lifesize cut-out of Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy in her bedroom and has spent a lifetime searching for her own dashing love interest. With no success. Her best friend fears her love of all things Austen borders on a dangerous obsession, especially after Jane books a holiday at Austenland, an English resort where fans get to live out their Pride and Prejudice fantasies in period costume. Unfortunately when Jane arrives at Austenland the stern proprietress Mrs. Waddlesbrook (Jane Seymour) informs her she purchased the economy package. Which means not only must she adopt the alter-ego of a foundling with no future prospects but also that romance with Mr. Right is not guaranteed. Nonetheless, Jane hits it off with boisterous fellow guest Miss Charming (Jennifer Coolidge), who hasn't even read any Austen but fancies the idea of shagging hot guys in breeches, and soon sets her cap on dashing Darcy-alike Mr. Henry Nobley (JJ Feild). Yet Jane also finds herself increasingly attracted to down-to-earth stablehand Martin (Flight of the Concords' Bret McKenzie), while it remains an open question which relationship is real and which is mere romantic fantasy.
Fan love for the BBC's 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice almost surpasses the original text. So far it has inspired the likes of Bridget Jones' Diary (2001), wherein definitive Darcy Colin Firth played a variation on his much beloved role, and the mini-series Lost in Austen (2008) which at one stage was set to be remade as a Hollywood movie. Now we have Austenland which marks the directorial debut of Jerusha Hess whose past work as a co-screenwriter with husband Jared Hess on Napoleon Dynamite (2004), Nacho Libre (2006) and Gentleman Broncos (2009) established her as the queen of quirky comedies. Interestingly the film is produced by Stephanie Meyer, author of the immensely successful Twilight series who, in some ways, stands as Austen's twenty-first century equivalent as a creator of populist yet psychologically acute romantic fantasies.
Adapted from a novel by Shannon Hale, who co-wrote the screenplay with Hess, the film deals with the familiar theme of fiction implanting people with romantic ideals unattainable in real life, an idea most successfully explored by Federico Fellini in The White Sheik (1952). Hale and Hess serve up a double dose of satire aimed both at fantasy theme parks selling hopeless romantics on the idea of "happily ever after" and American delusions about the quaintness of English life with Jane Seymour perfectly cast in prim English aristo mode as a tyrant in regency muslin. It is a promising concept though alas, the comedy rarely rises above mildly amusing with too much emphasis placed on Jennifer Coolidge's over-familiar crass tourist act. Additionally, while the film spoofs some famous episodes from Austen's fiction – including one corny but likeable gag wherein Jane breaks into Nelly's "Hot in Herre" while dabbling on the piano – the heroine's romance with the stablehand comes across less Jane Austen, more Mills & Boon. A tone reinforced by the late arrival of studly Jamaican Captain East (Ricky Whittle), a character undeniably funny in concept though not one you would expect to find in an Austen novel.
Confusingly, Jane's relationship with Mr. Nobley mirrors that of their fictional counterparts almost exactly which casts some ambiguity upon her romance with Martin. Given their courtship unfolds in exactly the sort of idyllic storybook fashion the film aims to satirize viewers can surmise something is up. Yet when the film springs what ought to be a mind-bending twist it only muddles whatever point Hale and Hess are trying to make about the conflict between real love and romantic fantasy. On the positive side, the oft-underrated Keri Russell is a winningly empathetic heroine and Georgia King is a delight as a ripe parody of your typical Austen antagonist.