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Movie review: A daft spin at romance in ‘Austenland’

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Courtesy photo A scene from "Austenland," which was part of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.

By Sean P. Means

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Aug 22 2013 04:45PM
Updated Feb 14, 2014 11:32PM

No, gentle reader, one need not be a lover of Jane Austen’s novels to enjoy "Austenland."

Nor, even though Utah filmmaker Jerusha Hess directed the film, is it required that the viewer be a fan of the movie she co-wrote with her husband, Jared, "Napoleon Dynamite."

Hess, making her directing debut and co-writing with Utah author Shannon Hale to adapt Hale’s comic novel, manages to hit a sweet spot between Miss Austen’s wry observations and "Napoleon Dynamite’s" blissful wackiness. The results are funny, sweet and utterly charming.

Jane Hayes, played by Keri Russell, is an obsessed fan of Jane Austen’s novels. Most particularly, she’s enraptured by Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy from the 1994 BBC miniseries of "Pride and Prejudice." Alas, no current suitor can ever match those lofty standards.

So Jane decides to empty her bank account for the experience of a lifetime, an immersive Regency-period theme park in the English countryside. There, the proprietrix Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour) promises in the promotional video, women not only can live the 18th-century life but also will be guaranteed their own Austen-style romance.

When Jane arrives, she discovers that because she did not spring for the deluxe package, she is assigned the persona of Jane Erstwhile, an orphan with no prospects who sleeps in the servants’ quarters. She does get to sit in the parlor with the other guests: Miss Elizabeth Charming (Jennifer Coolidge), an American boor whose fake accent veers from Eliza Doolittle to Long John Silver, and the flighty Lady Heartwright (Georgia King).

The suitors include the foppish Col. Andrews ("Battlestar Galactica’s" James Callis), the muscular seaman Capt. George East (Ricky Whittle) and the stiff Henry Nobley (J.J. Feild), the park’s version of Mr. Darcy. Jane trades barbs with Nobley, but finds herself attracted to the park’s gruff stablehand, Martin (played by Bret McKenzie, from "Flight of the Conchords").

Hess and Hale produce some pleasant chuckles poking fun at Jane’s happily deluded romanticism, and Russell is quite charming as she lets Jane emerge from her mousy persona to "write my own story." Russell can’t approach the gut-busting laughs produced by Coolidge’s daffy readings or King’s spaced-out noblewoman, but she delivers in the clinch — as Jane realizes the love triangle she’s caught in isn’t with Nobley and Martin but with reality and fantasy.

With "Austenland," Hess serves a comedy that’s as jauntily off-the-wall as "Napoleon Dynamite," but with a gooey romantic center that wins you over. It may not be as subtle as Miss Austen’s best work, but it would probably make her crack a discreet smile.

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