BOOK AND MOVIE REVIEW: Austenland by Shannon Hale

“She was growing used to slippers and empire waists, she felt naked outside without a bonnet, during drawing room evenings her mouth felt natural exploring the kind of words that Austen might’ve written.” – Austenland (novel)

Like many Jane Austen fans, I sat on the edge of my seat awaiting Austenland to arrive on our screens. And then I quickly started reading the very negative reviews rolling in, and found myself hesitating to watch the film. In fact, by the time I got around to seeing it even friends of mine who only vaguely know who Jane was had seen it.

Despite my utter abhorrence for all things tacky (and then ability to own and collect said things anyway), I actually enjoyed this film for what it was. Regardless of the melodrama there was a layer of reality to the film – and how could you not expect some melodrama and silliness when Jennifer Coolidge was one of the lead actors, notorious for her roles in Legally Blonde and American Pie? The fact is, get any group of adults and make them dress up in Regency clothes and you would find yourself in such awkward company as seen in this film. There will always be someone taking the role playing way too far, some who are completely out of place, and others who just don’t get it. This actually made the film more likable.

Back when the film was announced, with Stephanie Meyer at the helm, I remember hoping it would be more elegant than pink and over the top (and expressed my thoughts it may be the latter). But now I’m glad it is exactly what it is. It’s not an emotional roller coaster, doesn’t ask us to think too much and is atypical of 95% of the Jane Austen spinoff novels that I have read, reveling in being over the top chicklit.

I imagine I’d be much like Jane, our lead character, who is over excited about going to Austenland (spending her life savings on the ‘copper package’ – which basically entitles her to be a peasant) and then finds it a pretty uncomfortable place. While the character development is neither deep nor obvious, this is less a drama about finding true love than it is a romantic comedy. And if you enjoy the modern rom com and are looking for some Jane Austen references, then this is up your street.

Things I really loved about the film included her bedroom design – while I thought the Colin Firth cut out was comically acceptable, it was the most stupid addition with Jane kissing and stroking the thing. I know many Austen fans, and obviously I am one myself, and while Jane Austen graces my book case, handbag, jewelry, diary and several other things, I’d never have a cardboard cutout of a character. I could, however, completely sympathise with the plushy Mr Darcy – who wouldn’t want that? Let’s be frank, this film makes fun of Janeites the world around, but let’s also remember that there is much to laugh at when looking at how obsessive some (most) of us can be about our beloved Jane and the Regency era. I’m hardly ashamed, and take this sort of hilarity in my stride – as Jane would have done.

It’s also great to see the outfits, the houses, the horse riding and the general clumsiness that this would surely inspire in any modern participant. I’ve regularly wondered how our uncoordinated counterparts in the Regency era fared – I certainly am unlikely to climb a horse without knocking out everyone within a ten metre radius with flailing limbs – and the answer is here. I absolutely adored the insanity of the play that they put on, and the realities of seeing women unable to sing (or play) at the piano.

Another enjoyment was seeing Jude Law’s lookalike, JJ Feild, as Henry Nobley – after his 2007 appearance as Mr Tilney in Northanger Abbey. I can’t help but feel that he makes a fabulous Regency gentleman. Also, did anyone else enjoy the James Callis/Colonel Andrews joke after his Bridget Jones Tom character?

I did get a little irritated that Jane was so unable to pick the Kiwi accent of Martin (played by New Zealander Bret McKenzie). Perhaps Americans aren’t that familiar with the completely opposite vowel sounds, but he in no way sounded British.

I watched this with my girlfriend, who is extremely well-read but hardly a Jane Austen fan, and she actually enjoyed it – I caught her laughing more than me at some of the outlandish situations.

The plot twists are obvious, as is who will end up with whom, but this doesn’t make it any less enjoyable as casual watching. Another major criticism thrown at the film is that it doesn’t line up with Shannon Hale’s original book. Perhaps this is why I didn’t turn my nose up at the film – I hadn’t endeavoured to read the book before the film, particularly as reviews had been pretty negative from other bloggers I respect. I do tend to dislike it when films deviate too much from a novel without just cause, so in an effort to review this properly, I read the book.

I bought a copy, a slim volume, for $24.95 from Kmart. It has the cover from the movie, and an easy-reading feel. I read it aloud over a series of evenings to Nicole, my wifey, so that I could get her perspective on how the two matched up – although I read the final chapters alone as I felt this was taking far too long! While I’m sure she hasn’t been necessarily thrilled for me to force her to hear about more Jane Austen spinoffs she definitely has some interesting perspectives when it comes to adaptations (and she even recently watched the first part of the 2008 Sense and Sensibility miniseries with me).

One of the aspects that ‘got my goat’ about Austenland the film was how Martin said that Jane was ‘different’ to the other ladies who came to role play and live in a fantasy world. In the film this is exactly why she is there. In the book, she is left the trip as an inheritance from her Great Aunt Carolyn, which explains how her motivations are truly different from the other women there. It also makes Pembroke Park a lot more alluring and mysterious, by not making it something that any travel agent will suggest, nor even something you can Google to much effect. Jane’s Regency obsession is also far less pronounced – she even goes so far as to hide the BBC/A&E Pride and Prejudice DVD box set in a pot plant, something I doubt the owner of a cardboard cutout Colin Firth would bother with.

There’s also a strange division between what is and is not allowed on the estate. While mobile phones and iPods are forbidden (how would they survive!), other modern conveniences are brought in – such as modern heaters, toilets and similar.

The book is short, brief, but does the trick. It covers very little new ground in the Jane Austen fan genre, but it does make a nice addition to the collection. Overall, I see where the criticisms for the film come from having read the book. Reading the story makes it far more subtle, and far more likable for Jane Austen fans – with more mentions of Emma, Mansfield Park and our other favourites. It’s also humorously separated into ‘boyfriend’ explanations at the beginning of each chapter, where we see, in full detail, the hilarious failings of our heroine’s romantic adventures. This could have been a nice way to frame the film into separate days or chapters, but it appears the idea was somewhat abandoned in the book-to-film translation. It also presented a bit more depth to Mr Nobley and Miss Erstwhile’s relationship – we get far more of their dialogue, the teasing and the Mr Darcy/Elizabeth Bennet type tone to the banter. There’s also something beautiful about the way her painting, and what it means to her and how she views the world, is described. This is completely abandoned onscreen.

Despite the more subtle tone of the book, I did actually feel that Jennifer Coolidge’s Miss Charming, the most dramatic and over the top of all, was the character kept closest to the book.

My favourite part, in both the film and the book, was the play and the rehearsing for it. I don’t want to ruin this bit for anyone, but in both it is where the Nobley/Erstwhile relationship shines the most. It has me wondering – do we think the other heroines believe that they’re in love with the Regency actors? How easy would it be to fall in love (is it still love?) with someone playing a part? The blurry line between fiction and reality, that we all grapple with at some point or another, is a worthy study for an Austen novel grander than this one (in fact, the play in Mansfield Park deals with several of these themes). But perhaps all of Jane Austen’s novels are about play acting – pretending not to be in love, pretending engagements don’t exist, pretending that your shoelace is broken so you can throw your friend in the path of matrimony (as Emma does) or pretending to be a dear friend (as Caroline Bingley does to Jane Bennet). The entire play acting premise is enough to make you dizzy when reading Jane Austen.

My least favourite part in both the book and the film, is the ending. I won’t ruin it too much, only to say that it’s the same happy-contrived-ending that we’re accustomed to in much Austen fanfiction… and the same endings that leave me somewhat hollow, with all the loose endings being tied up just a tad too neatly.

The storyline has me imagining my very own Austenland, a place very separate from that presented in the novel and the film. I’m imagining tours to different Regency houses, some balls, feasts and plays, but with all the modern conveniences allowed (phones after an 8pm curfew?) and with none of this romantic randomness. I’m not sure I can go three hours without email, let alone three weeks. What would your Austenland look like?

A final heads up goes to the true filming location of fictional Pembroke Park, being West Wycombe Estate in England. Avid historical fans will instantly recognise it from Downton Abbey, Little Dorrit and the 2007 Cranford. It is also that seen in The Duchess from 2008 and was even in 1986’s Labyrinth. A quick search finds that it has been featured in a haunting series, a Paloma Faith music video, Horrible Histories, X-Men 2011, The Importance of Being Earnest and in upcoming The Queen of the Desert.

The estate’s website notes that it has also been used for period game shooting scenes, as well as for a Dolce & Gabbana shoot. A small part of me is also thrilled that it is owned by a family of the name Dashwood.

If you’re an Austen purist, or looking for deep characterisation and emotion… head back to your A&E Pride and Prejudice. For the rest of us, watch on in amusement.

“What would happen to her heart when she left Pembrook Park?” – page 141

1 Comment

Filed under Book Review, Movie Review

One response to “BOOK AND MOVIE REVIEW: Austenland by Shannon Hale

  1. I’ve yet to read the book, but I really enjoyed the movie. One criticism I have about the DVD of the movie, it doesn’t have the bloopers or deleted scenes on it! You can find them on Youtube.

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