PARK CITY - As a movie pitch "Austenland" seems like a no-brainer. A devoted and sadly single Jane Austen fan (appropriately named Jane and played by Keri Russell) decides to spend her life savings to visit Austenland, an immersive vacation resort which promise her a personal Mr. Darcy experience. Of course, nothing goes as planned, but our heroine still finds love where she wouldn't have expected it. Throw in some quirky British characters trying to pull off the 19th Century in the 21st Century and you have numerous comedic opportunities. Based on the novel by Shannon Hale and co-produced by Stephenie Meyer, Jerusha Hess' "Austenland" should quickly evoke a bidding war that will make the numerous studios regret passing on the first time around.
The proceedings start off slowly with Jane finding resistance from her best friend who believes she's making a huge mistake and, instead, should spend her money on a "life changer" vacation. Jane heads off to England anyway and soon meets a fellow guest, the goofy and a little out there Miss Elizabeth Charming (Jennifer Coolidge). Upon arriving at Austenland, Jane is sad to discover she's only paid for the copper package which means she'll be living in servant quarters (don't worry, it looks better than you think) and has a much less glamorous wardrobe. Hess focuses a bit on Coolidge at first to generate the laughs, but as soon as we meet the residents or hired actors at the Manor things get much more interesting and comical.
Jane and Elizabeth's vacation story features the owner of the manor, Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour), the pouty Mr. Nobley (J.J. Feild ), an overbearing and possibly gay Colonel Andrews ("Battlestar Galactica's" James Callis) and another guest, the beautiful Miss Amelia Heartwright (a fantastic Georgia King). As you'd expect, Jane finds no Mr. Darcy waiting in the wings and quickly realizes this may not be the life changer she was hoping for. Instead, she falls for one of the servants, Martin (Bret McKenzie) who brings a dose of reality into her stay and, relatively, sweeps her off her feet. As the week passes, however, Jane becomes enamored with Mr. Nobley and Martin gets jealous of their flirtations. Of course, all is not what it seems and as the film progresses Jane's feelings get flipped back and forth and back again between both men.
To be clear, Hess isn't breaking any ground here. "Austenland" is a crowd-pleaser with a smart script and a cast that appears to be having a jolly ol' time. What sparks the most is McKenzie who shows he can easily be a romantic comedy leading man (assuming the Oscar winner even wants to go in that direction) and Coolidge who may be doing her same old schtick, but hasn't had this much screen time in years and is completely on her game. Russell becomes increasingly more feisty as Jane takes control of her own story. Feild does his best Colin Firth as Mr. Nobley and genuinely makes the audience unsure of who they want Jane to end up with.
Hess, who co-wrote "Napoleon Dynamite," "Nacho Libre" and "Gentleman Broncos" with her husband Jared, thankfully has a more audience-friendly and inviting directing style than her husband. In a perfect world, her work with this material would make her a sought after studio helmer, but Hollywood is still too slow to recognize talented female filmmakers to make that a given.
"Austenland" is one of the most commercially friendly films to screen at the festival in years. It's hard to imagine almost every mini-major in Hollywood not having a serious interest in acquiring it.
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