'Austenland': A Fantasy

TribeIdent2 Isabelle Bousquette reviews Jerusha Hess' newest film, Austenland. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman in possession of Pride and Prejudice must be a little bit in love with Mr. Darcy. Or at least, this is the stance taken by director Jerusha Hess’ new film, Austenland. The story centers around one woman’s consuming love for all things Jane Austen. Jane Hayes, played by actress Keri Russell, has built herself a world of nineteenth century trinkets and Mr. Darcy merchandise. Yet, nothing feeds her obsession substantially enough until she discovers Austenland, the ultimate Jane Austen experience. Guests here live on an old English estate and spend their days with card games and embroidery. And, most importantly, each guest enjoys a “rewarding romance” with one of the estate’s actors, culminating in a faux engagement at the final evening’s ball. Austenland roughly follows the same plot as Pride and Prejudice itself. Jane, our heroine, is thrust into a situation with several social superiors; she has purchased a package at Austenland far below the social level of her fellow visitors and she is proclaimed “an orphan of no fortune.” Still, Jane engages in some skirmishes of wit with her Mr. Darcy aka Mr. Nobely (JJ Field). However, she’s entranced by the passionate, if slightly disrespectful, Wickham equivalent, Martin ('Flight of the Conchords' Bret McKenzie). Martin’s status as Austenland’s handyman gives Jane a heightened sense of self worth for pursuing him. She spends most of her time with Martin until she discovers that he is perhaps dishonorable. Meanwhile, romance blooms with Mr. Nobely. However, there is one fatal flaw to Jane and Nobely’s happy ending: it’s set in a world where everything, namely romance, is a customer transaction. It’s unclear to them, as well as the audience, whether or not they possess genuine emotion beyond the façade of this romance. This lack of honesty among the protagonists accentuates the film's antagonist. Martin’s derogatory and brutally truthful comments about Austenland are part of what make him so likable, at least for most of the film. McKenzie’s undeniable comedic talents are prevalent and outshine JJ Field’s bland performance. Martin and Jane’s spontaneous, impassioned, and slightly inappropriate romance is the kind of 'Romeo & Juliet' story modern audiences are used to, but we’re inside Austen’s rare literary breed of the happy and socially appropriate ending. The film’s seemingly too perfect conclusion is acceptable when we accept a sort of “Austenland” ourselves. This is hardly the most romantic of modern Jane Austen adaptations, in part because of the stiff competition. The last couple of decades have seen a recurring fascination with recreating classic stories in modern contexts. For example, Clueless (1995) was a fresh take on Emma. Beyond its undeniable appeal to teenagers, the film had several interesting ideas about Austen’s literature. Fitting Emma’s plot line so seamlessly into 1990s Los Angeles culture makes the viewer contemplate how little we've changed since the Regency Era. At least to Clueless’ heroine, Cher, the world still seems to revolve around social acceptance and finding love. Yet, Austenland’s approach to the modern retelling is profoundly different than Clueless. Clueless hints at society’s regressive nature, while Austenland attempts to explain it. Austenland explicitly delves into the Regency Era beyond the obvious social inequalities in a way that previous films haven’t risked attempting. Women wore fancy dresses and rode on horseback through the English countryside. Their lives were all but consumed in leisure. Even on a deeper level, love itself was far less complicated. If Clueless whispers that our society is slightly backward, then Austenland responds screaming: 'of course it is. Look how we idealize and romanticize this profoundly socially crippling time period.' The film spells out just how absurd the Regency Era was. The impracticality of clothing, oddity of food, and pure boredom faced by ladies are interesting commentaries on the time and also give way to legitimately funny one-liners. The movie thrives by displaying this absurdity, juxtaposing modern social norms within the context of Austenland. For example, George East (Ricky White), one of the actor-suitors, is a black man. East plays a naval captain who boasts of his West Indies conquests, creating a clear distinction between himself and the other gentlemen. This displays the oddity of a culture where interracial mingling requires a rare and delicate sub-context. Racial equality is so expected nowadays that its absence beforehand is still slightly shocking. The Regency Era is portrayed in such a ridiculous light that we start finding it difficult to believe people really lived that way. It essentially becomes a fantasy. And because we have so inextricably connected Austen’s plot lines to her era, the concept of truly finding love becomes fantastical, too.  “All the good men are fictional,” remarks a now cynical Jane. And we believe her. However, it’s fitting that Austenland offers us the same happy ending that Austen does. Our resolution is the idea that real love, despite its imperfections, is still better than the fantasy. A real gentleman is better than an airbrushed well-dressed Mr. Darcy cardboard cutout. Reality is better than living within the perfected and predictable, albeit beautiful pages of Austen’s literature. Austenland ‘s message elevates it above the empty and trite rom-coms of today, but it doesn't necessarily give Austen herself the credit she deserves. Austen was a quiet revolutionary of social liberation. Her novels, so unique, are filled with lasting messages about society and humanity. Indeed, they are so much more than just novels. This film, despite the strides it makes ahead of the traditional Austen adaptations, is nothing more than a film. Isabelle Bousquette