“Austenland,” the novel by Shannon Hale, is a light, breezy read that balances entertainment value with respect for author Jane Austen. A young woman, unlucky in love, is obsessed with Austen's novels, especially her handsome, though difficult, character Mr. Darcy. That is specifically Mr. Darcy as personified by Colin Firth in the BBC miniseries of “Pride & Prejudice.”
“Austenland,” the movie, seemed like a couldn’t miss idea. Many of those making it, including director Jerusha Hess and producer Stephenie Meyer are Austen fans. The novel's slim length and easy plot were tailor-made for a screenplay. Actress Keri Russell, cast in the lead role of Jane Hayes, has been one of the most likeable actresses since her teen years in TV’s “Felicity.”
But, simply put, “Austenland,” the film, is a bummer of a disappointment. It feels like a movie made by people who laughed at the source material, not admired it. From the silly opening montage, the film makes fun of Jane’s obsession with Darcy (Jane kisses her life-sized cutout of Darcy; her bedroom looks like a little girl’s room with Darcy spelled out above her Regency-styled bed), as well as the idea of Austenland, a place where you could live for a time as Austen did. Characters are caricatures and the overacting is mortifying. The all-female soundtrack that I’m sure sounded like a great idea at the time, is too obtrusive and cloying -- a good word for the film.
If you want to watch a film that celebrates Darcy, see “Pride & Prejudice” (1995) with that wonderful scene of Firth rising wet, but respectably clothed, from the water. Or director Joe Wright’s surprisingly great 2005 film starring Keira Knightley. In it, Darcy (Matthew Macfayden) emerges from the fog, his black cape swirling about him, on his way to profess his love for Elizabeth Bennett. Those are two great romantic films, whether you read Jane Austen or not.