Other Media Review

Austenland, A Film Review

D+

Title: Austenland
Written By: Jerusha (director), Shannon Hale (author) Hess
Publication Info: Sony Pictures Classics 2013
Genre: Chick Lit

Book Austenland with Movie Poster Cover Austenland is a fun book about a woman who goes to an Austen reenactment resort. 

It was a Sizzling Book Club pick in May 2013. 

I read the book; I waited for the movie to open in Sacramento, and the movie finally got here and IT WAS HORRIBLE.

It was so incredibly offensive on so many levels, I just….

Clip from Clue The Movie - captioned it -it-the -it - flames -- flames on the side of my face - breaths - heaving breaths

 

Austenland (the movie and the book) is about a woman, Jane, who is obsessed with the works of Jane Austen.  Jane Austen rather famously wrote more than one book, but since this is a romantic comedy, Jane is actually only obsessed with Pride and Prejudice and with Colin Firth.  She decides to spend her life savings (in the movie, not the book) on a visit to Austenland, a Jane Austen themed resort in which all the guests (who are all women) are promised a “romance experience” with a male employee by the trip’s end. 

On arrival, she realizes several things.  One is that she accidentally bought the cheapest package and the resort owner holds her in contempt because of this.  Another is that she actually can’t stand the “Mr. Darcy” type, and she really, really likes Martin, the groundskeeper, and the only person who seems to be “outside of the fantasy”, i.e., not an actor.  She also realizes that Regency life is sometimes very boring.

OK, here’s what’s good about the movie – and where the movie is good, it’s very good indeed.

1. It’s pretty.
2. The following members of the cast are wonderful:  Kerri Russell (as Jane), J.J. Field (as Mr. Nobley), Bret McKenzie (as Martin), and Jane Seymour (as Mrs. Wattelsbrook).
3. Kerri Russell gives a truly luminous performance and she has terrific chemistry with both McKenzie and Field.

Thus concludes the good stuff.  Here’s the bad stuff:

The movie is offensive to fans of Austen and, by implication, to fans of romance.  Women who are deeply devoted to Austen are silly, didn’t you know that?  Didn’t you know that they compulsively collect fake Regency crap and they ought to be ashamed because how dare they choose to spend their money on flowery stuff? 

Didn’t you know that women who love romantic fiction are incapable of functioning in the real world because they don’t understand the difference between fantasy and reality?  Silly little starry eyed things – why can’t they grow up?  Of course this message is confused by the fact that they are clearly not supposed to settle for the jerks in their life that sexually harass them at work…but see, it’s sort of their fault that they are surrounded by jerks.  It’s because they won’t build relationships with decent guys because they want all men to be not decent but perfect.  Silly, silly women.

The movie is gross.  I had forgotten just how demeaning the entire set up is.  Each woman is paying to have a “romance” with a male actor (there is a “no touching” clause that is violated quite frequently).  Watching this play out on the big screen is incredibly uncomfortable, especially if you picture the roles reversed.  When Mr. Wattlesbrook tries to force kisses (and probably a rape – it’s unclear how far things will go but it's pretty menacing) on Jane, it’s played for drama (although Mr. Nobley’s approval of Jane’s “ninja” abilities is quite humorous and endearing).  When Miss Charming’s character, played by Jennifer Coolidge, repeatedly tries to force kisses on Colonel Andrews, it is played for laughs, despite the obvious discomfort and humiliation on his face.  Women leer over men, watch them strip, treat them as potential sexual conquests, and are basically just as demeaning towards men as men ever are towards women, and it’s not played for social commentary.  It’s assumed that this behavior is OK, whereas if nothing else, one look at Colonel Andrews’ face should assure you that it is not.

I don’t fantasize about a world in which women are permitted to treat men badly.  I fantasize about a world in which men and women treat each other well.  This doesn’t mean women can’t revel in their sexuality, but it does mean that a story that is based on emotional prostitution and significant amounts of physical prostitution with imbalances of power and a lack of respect is not a fantasy – it’s a nightmare.  It’s probably possible to write a similar scenario in which men and women are acting out emotional and sexual fantasies in an atmosphere of mutual respect and consent, but this movie isn’t it.  It's not romantic – it's gross.

Everything in this movie rings false.  The complexities of women’s characters and their relationships to each other are erased.  A rather interesting character from the book is turned into a stereotypical mean girl – because everyone knows that pretty girls are mean, and that girls fight over men instead of being friends – right?   A historian states that it’s pleasant to escape into history because it represents a “simpler” time, a statement that indicates that he has not, in fact, studied any history.  Jennifer Coolidge is not funny (except in one great line).  I didn’t know she could be un-funny, but she is.  The follow-up regarding Mr. Wattlesbrook is appalling in both in its callous approach to Mrs. Wattlesbrook and its irresponsibility towards future clients.  It’s not just horrible – it feels fake where it is supposed to feel real.

BUT…did I mention how very, very good Kerri Russell is?  Her character is not entirely sympathetic, but she pulls you along with her commitment to the movie.  If I’m very lucky, I’ll manage to eventually forget all about how offensive this movie was.  What I hope I recall is the look of wonder and delight on Kerri Russell’s face when she steps into the ballroom.  There’s a good movie buried in here, with some fairly deep things to say about fantasy versus reality, but it can’t make its way out through the incoherence.  There were funny moments, moments of great charm, and honestly the chemistry is really something.  As an aside, James Callis, from Battlestar Galactica, plays Colonel Andrews. He’s totally unrecognizable and not sexy at all but he gives a surprisingly nuanced performance.

I liked the book Austenland that the movie is based on.  I thought it was funny, and occasionally heartwarming, and romantic, although I have to confess that I was rooting for the gardener all along.  Full disclosure – I vastly preferred Midnight in Austenland ( A | BN | K S | ARe | iB ), but I did enjoy Austenland very much. I recall feeling a vague sense of unease about the men’s roles but no major feelings of rage or revulsion, as I did during the movie.  I don’t expect a movie to be completely faithful to a book, and I know that I will usually prefer the book, so I was prepared to cut the movie some slack, but I think the movie made a couple of missteps that the book did not:

  • In the book, Jane hasn’t heard of Austenland.  She is sent there at the order of a deceased relative (an aunt, if I recall correctly?) who left her the money to go there in her will.  Jane expects some flirtation and a ball, but I don’t recall that the “romantic experience” element is a big part of the advertising.  In the movie, it is the central part of the advertising – it’s the highlight of the trip.  For most clients, it’s the point of the trip.  So the role of men is explicitly one of existing to make the women “romantically” happy, instead of being a subtle underpinning of the story.

     

  • In the book, Jane goes to Austenland reluctantly, thinking that for one thing she might as well go because her aunt paid for it, and for another thing she should go because it will make her finally get over her Darcy obsession.  Of course she hates the Darcy-esque character at first, and considers herself cured.  And, of course, by the end she and Mr. Darcy-esque have fallen in love.  There’s a sense that fantasy can be harmful or helpful, depending on how you use it. 

    In the movie, Jane spends her life savings to go to Austenland, thinking not that it will “fix”  her but that it will be her one chance to live the life she’s always dreamed of.  She becomes completely disillusioned by it and when she and Mr. Nobley finally get together, it’s because both of them are tired of fantasy and want to be “real”.  The “fantasy” of Austenland is seen unreservedly as silly and demeaning.
     

  • In the book, Lady Amelia, Miss Charming, and Jane are all friends or become friends by the end of the book.  Their friendship subverts the ugly stereotypes about women ‘cat fighting’, while the movie plays right into those stereotypes.  Perhaps this was done to add drama, but it only makes the movie feel more flat and predictable (and annoying).

     

Many thanks to SBSarah for helping me remember the set up of the book – it’s been a long time since I’ve read it.  I’d love to hear from readers who remember the book better than I do.  Was the sexual assault was handled differently in the book?  In the movie, it’s an attack on a woman (Jane), who uses it to attack another woman (she uses it to blackmail Mrs. Wattelsbrook), and who then decides not to follow up on pressing charges (not for any stated reason – she just drops it), thus leaving other women open to attack.  There are not enough gifs in all the world to express my utter dismay.

The best part of the movie is a music video that plays over the end credits.  Alas, it’s not even a full video.  Seriously – it’s they don’t even do the whole song. My advice is skip this movie and wait until someone posts the music video clip on YouTube.  I’m so disappointed in this movie!


SB Sarah: despite my best diligent hunting, I could only come up with a brief camera-phone cip of the end credits, but it looks preposterously funny. I hope it's online soon.

 

Link!

 

Austenland is still in some theatres, according to MovieTickets.com, and you can read more about reviewer reaction vs audience reaction at Rotten Tomatoes.

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Aly says:

    I haven’t read the book or seen the movie, but my expectations for it took a nosedive when I found out it was produced by the creator of Twilight.

    Plus, if I remember correctly, there’s already a mini-series called “Lost in Austen” which was quite fun (even though sometimes it bordered on ridiculous). There’s only so much Jane Austen I can take.

  2. 2
    Shannon says:

    Caveat:  I hate most movies based off a book that I’ve read.  The two are usually two different stories, and this was the case for Austenland.  If you like the book which is about how Austen captures the imagination and how the heroine deals with fantasy and reality, then this isn’t going to be as good.  The absurdity of the reality versus romantic fantasy is captured in one line in the book (there are lots of restaurants) is delightful.

    The movie does make fun of romance and those who like it.

    The other problem with the movie is that the main emphasis is so on how she likes the gardener, then doesn’t like him, and then doesn’t like Austenland and very little on the story line.  At the end, its hard to believe Jane would want to be with the D’Arcy character.

  3. 3
    Dianna says:

    I read the book and hated it for the reasons you didn’t like the film. And I mean really hated it: I thought there was a vile level of contempt for readers who choose to enjoy P&P as a romance, as if there is something very wrong in woman who want life to be pretty and lovely. As if they can’t distinguish between reality and fiction.

    I didn’t like Jane’s attitude. While she wasn’t nasty to the others, she spent some time thinking herself better than the other women. She was younger, prettier, and of course she was too smart to be taken in by the relative fakery of Austenland.

    There’s a point in the book where Jane, after a period of intense self reflection, decides to change everything. She will be vibrant, confident, creative version of herself starting … Now. And then it’s tick tick tick nothing. The book was a lot of tick tick tick nothing.

    Before it sounds like I have no sympathy at all for the character and her flaws, I should mention I did come to care about Jane. The story introduced each chapter with a summary of one of her failed relationships. I won’t give it away, but there was one in particular that was as unpleasant as it was nonsensical. At that point I felt I had to like Jane because clearly her author didn’t.

    I can’t really approach the movie which is a shame, because Brett McKenzie is lovely and I’d have liked to see him play Martin.

  4. 4
    Lil says:

    I haven’t read the book, but I saw a trailer for Austenland. That was quite enough to guarantee I would never go see the movie itself.

  5. 5

    I wasn’t a fan of the book but I didn’t hate it. I like Kerri Russel though so I figured this would be one of those Amazon rentals when it came out but not now.

  6. 6
    Isobel Carr says:

    Frankly, the bit in the ad about Jane spending her life savings on the trip was enough to put me off. It’s one thing to take a trip you can afford. It’s another to to spend your life savings on something frivolous if you’re dying. It’s another thing entirely to blow it on a whim in such a capricious fashion. I just can’t respect the person who does that.

  7. 7
    jennifer says:

    I’ll admit I didn’t have high hopes for this movie, since the it was brought to you by the folks that made Napoleon Dynamite. Oof. What a waste of JJ Field.

  8. 8
    Jess says:

    I read the book about 6 months ago and thought it was fine. I also enjoyed Midnight in Austenland way more. But seeing the movie made me appreciate the subtleties of the original book more. If I remember correctly, in the book Jane is a bit ashamed of her romantic tendencies but by the end of the book she has overcome that shame and accepted that part of herself. Lady Amelia is a bit standoffish at first in the book but she is a better developed character and a much more interesting person in print than she is on film. And what was with the whole sea captain/West Indies/soap star thing? Overall, the characters were turned into wild caricatures of themselves and it was uncomfortable to watch.

    I also really disliked how the movie overturned all of the rules of Austenland that made it appealing. In the book, the guests and employees are required to follow certain rules of etiquette and it added to the romantic charm of the place. The movie also had tvs, loudspeakers, etc all over Austenland so how are we supposed to believe that Jane would get kicked out for a cell phone? Also, in the book it made way more sense that the skeptical Jane would want to bring her phone with her. Why would the obsessive, “I’ve memorized all of Pride and Prejudice” movie Jane do something like that?

    I think the sexual assault issue was handled better in the book but I’d need to check. I’m pretty sure book Jane threatened Mrs Wattlesbrook with an article on her use of Martin to trick Jane rather than exposure for the Mr Wattlesbrook issues.

    Thank you for doing a review. I’ve been feeling ranty about it ever since I saw it a couple weeks ago so it’s nice to know I’m not alone.

  9. 9
    keri says:

    Is there a SBTB review of Austenland itself someplace? Because if not, I’m going to use Dianna’s comments up there as my guide… :P I don’t really have much reason to think she’s very wrong. I remember when Hale was working on this book, and clicked over to her blog, and was unsettled by some of the things she had posted. Like she said how she just couldn’t accept that men and women could be friends kind of stuff. :( It was very upsetting, since until I’d read those posts, I liked her a lot, but then it made me look at her books in a new light, and I lost some enjoyment of them.

    But even so, I’ve kind of been interested in Austenland, and the main reason I haven’t tried it out is because I didn’t trust that it wouldn’t be a less-than-positive reading experience, from what I saw her blogging. (Basically, that it would be pretty much like what Carrie S and Dianna said about the movie and book.)

  10. 10
    library addict says:

    As a fan of the actual P&P (book) and Colin Firth mini-series I had high hopes for the book when it came out. But it was a DNF for me.

    Thought I would try the movie until I saw the trailer. Guess I will have to get my JJ Feild fix with Northanger Abbey.

  11. 11
    Heather S says:

    I’m with library addict. I love P&P and the BBC mini-series of it, but my attempt at reading Austenland was a total DNF. I might have made it to the point where they actually arrived at the location, but I was so bored that I just tossed it aside. It ultimately ended up in the bag to trade at the used book store.

  12. 12

    CarrieS, if I remember correctly, the attempted sexual assault was handled exactly the same way you described it being done in the movie.  It is there, Jane fights him off, the men get rid of him, no one thinks about it for awhile, and then Jane threatens Mrs. Wattlesbrook when the truth of her experience comes out.  It was part of the reason I did not like Austenland as much as I wanted to like it.

  13. 13
    jimthered says:

    I didn’t read the book or see the movie, but there’s an interesting (and pretty positive) review of the film from THE VILLAGE VOICE at http://www.villagevoice.com/2013-08-14/film/austenland/full/  The review also suggests that the resort in the movie is deliberately superficial—“It is, in short, a parody of everything superficial in Austen and the films based on her works, a burlesque of the novels’ surfaces that is to the warm, brittle heart of the books themselves what fishsticks are to fresh mahi mahi”—and that the movie isn’t making fun of romance novel fans, but those who mistake the trappings of Austen and regency love for the heart of it.  (In other words, the people who think the appeal is the clothes and balls, not figuring out what one wants in the world and with a partner.)

  14. 14
    Emily A. says:

    How heartbreaking! I kind of thought it would be like this. I LOVED the book! It was one of my favorite book club picks! I had no intention of seeing the movie!

    In the book, I believe it’s a more distant relative like her grandmother’s sister.

      I disagree with the critiscisms of the book. I didn’t think she felt she was better than the other women not Amelia. (I also though she was kind to all the women even when she didn’t like them.) The other woman (who was played by the Jennifer Cooliedge character) didn’t try to get into the spirit of things, couldn’t handle the realities of the Regency period and was married and seemed to be looking to cheat on her spouse. Yes as a single woman if I met someone whom I thought was looking to cheat; I would look down on them.

    I didn’t get the brothel experience as much. I felt like it was more about the emotions than physicallity. I think in the book boundaries might have been more there.
    In the book, there are two older women. One I thought was Mrs. Wattlebrook, who was like the dean (and ran the more mundane side: she introduced people to the world, but then stepped out) and another women who was the chaperone figure who lived in the house.The chaperone figure was quite nice, and got along well with Jane. In the book, it’s her pretend husband who assaults Jane. I didn’t the assault was intentional in the fantasy. I think the actor got drunk and wanted her.  I took that just to be there are drunk a*******s everywhere.

    I loved Jane, because she was a nice person (in the book) and she was skeptical and she had a good if boring job in the field she wanted to be, and she was clueless towards relationships. She also had her own apartment and friends. She seemed fairly normal except she had terrible luck/skills in love. In the book, it’s not the fantasy that’s the problem it’s the fact that she has let blow out of proportion. The idea was more you can like for example the P&P movie, but it was getting out of hand.

    I also adored Nobely. My only problem was he seemed a little too good to be true.

  15. 15
    Samalamadingdong says:

    I guess I have to be in the minority. I saw it a few weeks ago in Milwaukee and I haven’t laughed that hard at a movie in a long time. I loved how fantastical and over the top it was. I read the book probably 5 years ago when it was first released, so I wasn’t so close to the story that I felt betrayed by any liberties. But seriously, I was laughing uncontrollably. The credits! Good thing there were like 8 people in the theater.

  16. 16
    Angstriddengoddess says:

    I lost interest in the movie when I read an interview with the director. She said that she’d toned down the romance in favor of physical comedy.
    With Austen, you can tone down the satire in favor of the romance, or vice versa. But to ignore both and focus on slapstick only shows the woman didn’t have a clue about why Austen appeals to people.

  17. 17
    Moviemavengal says:

    This movie was a swing and a miss for me.  There were parts that had me laughing out loud, and the credit dance was hilarious.  Little throwaway lines about Martin’s Kiwi accent, “Wait, you’re not even ENGLISH?” were very amusing.

    Carrie’s got it right, Keri Russell was absolutely luminous.  It reminded me of her excellent performance in the movie Waitress.  And J J Feild—swoon!  I wasn’t familiar with Bret Mackenzie who played Martin, but loved him.  Looking him up in IMDB, I am very amused that his silent unnamed elf character in Lord of the Rings was dubbed Figwit by female fans, “Frodo is great…who is THAT?!”

    So there were some things that were good, but as one reviewer put it, the editing was “flaccid”.  If you’re doing a comedy, the pacing and timing is crucial.  The tone was off, too.  I agree that changing the Austenland trip from a gift to her blowing her life savings made me respect her all the less.  Did she really need to be that ridiculous for the setup?

    What’s sad is that there are so few good romantic comedy movies made now.  I was hopeful on this one, even though I thought the book was mainly just okay.  Don’t blame Stephenie Meyer.  If she’s going to blow her money on something, let it be trying to get more romantic movies made.

    Why can’t every recent romantic movie be as good as Love, Actually?  Sigh.  At least Austenland wasn’t starring Katherine Heigl.  I won’t urge friends to run and see Austenland in theaters, but it’s worth watching on cable or Netflix.

    And James Callis from Battlestar Gallatica not sexy as Col. Andrews?  See his also gay character in Bridget Jones Diary.  He camps it up in both, but I still find him handsome.

  18. 18
    CarrieS says:

    Re James Callis – I think I have an aversion to mustaches.  But I loved him in BJD and, of course, in BSG!

  19. 19
    JaniceG says:

    I’m with Dianna on this: I was surprised at how many people really liked this book. i thought the idea of an Austen fantasy camp was intriguing but the book seemed to me to make the experience just as bad as this review describes the movie: the Regency aspect was a thin veneer and there was just as bad a setup about the women treating the men as supplied escort free to be exploited. I did think Jane thought she was better than at least some of the other women and also am surprised anyone would be leaning towards Martin to get the girl, as he seemed to me to be macho and insensitive even before the big reveal at the end.

    I am sorry to hear that the movie distorted one of the few good things about the movie, which was the ultimate female friendships formed.

  20. 20
    marjorie says:

    I haven’t read the book OR seen the movie (though I’ve read Shannon Hale’s Princess Academy and liked it a lot), but I like this review/comparison.

    Still, I only came to the comment box for the Madeline Kahn gif. If you see the snippet of the movie on YouTube you may hope, as I do, that Tim Curry is BARELY holding it together when she delivers this awesome line with so much awesomeness topped with more awesome; he really, REALLY looks like he wants to crack up. And I think Martin Mull, standing behind her in the .gif and the clip, breaks just the tiniest bit. It’s in the eyes.

    RIP, Madeline. We lost you much too soon.

  21. 21
    CarrieS says:

    @marjorie:  I read that she ad-libbed that and Tim curry was trying not to laugh and Christopher Lloyd was trying to figure out where she got those lines from.

  22. 22
    marjorie says:

    @CarrieS: I love you so much for telling me this. You are Colin Firth in a wet shirt to me right now.

  23. 23
    k8899 says:

    @ keri

    oof, major pet peeve of mine also. Thanks for the heads up and sympathy for the let down

  24. 24
    CarrieS says:

    @marjorie – Wow!  I’m super flattered and also slightly disturbed!  But mostly flattered!  I just made my husband watch Clue with me a couple of weeks ago – years of watching it and I still catch new lines.  This year’s previously missed line was:

    How many husbands have you had?
    Mine, or other women’s?

    Hee hee hee

  25. 25
    jason herbs says:

    I had the good fortune to run into Jerusha Hess in the parking lot afterward. She seems like a very genuine and engaging woman. I expect she will be highly sought-after from here out. A new Nora Ephron. In fact, there was something about this movie that reminded me a little of Mixed Nuts.

  26. 26
    LoriK says:

    I don’t fantasize about a world in which women are permitted to treat men badly.  I fantasize about a world in which men and women treat each other well.

    This. So much this.

    There have been a number of books over the years, including some by otherwise well-loved authors, that have violated this and I hate them. I didn’t read the book for a bunch of reasons and this aspect guarantees that I’ll never see the movie.

  27. 27
    ????? ????? says:

    I just hate it when they take a great book and somewhere in the process of making it into a movie it becomes bad.
    some things best left on paper..

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