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