Austenland begins with a concept so clever you wonder why it hadn’t been done before: what would a live action role-playing game geared toward women look like? It probably wouldn’t involve overweight accountants embodying orcs, hitting cardboard swords while bacne-ridden knights trade fake gold for fake amulets. What’s more girly than Jane Austen, whose heroines were plucky, witty and unostentatiously pretty, and who veritably set the standard for the “hate on first date” model of relationships? (To be fair, a horse named Sparkles Pancake may be more girly. But don’t worry, she makes an appearance; though sparkly vampires may might have been more appropriate, given that Twilight author Stephanie Meyer is one of Austenland’s producers.)
For Jane Hayes (Keri Russell), a woman obsessed with all things Austen, watching Colin Firth wade around in his wet, white shirt in the BBC adaptation of Pride & Prejudice is considerably sexier than actually having sex. She’s gone a little overboard—her bedroom has a creepy, Buffalo Bill-like vibe—yet Jane’s Austen obsession seems both topical and relatable. The 200th anniversary of Austen’s most famous novel was celebrated just last month in London with nothing other than a sculpture memorializing the soaked Mr. Firth.
For Jane, being a Janeite has been a lifelong endeavor, at a time that has never quite lived up to the cultured society of Austen’s era. So when she gets the opportunity to visit an “all-immersive” Austenland in the British countryside (a sort of combination dinner theater and Regency Renaissance Festival), she jumps at the chance. Unfortunately, she’s cash strapped, and thus regulated to the “basic experience” of her Disneyfied fantasy, which is to say that the estate’s owner Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour, in a far cry from Dr. Quinn), turns up her nose and treats Jane like human garbage. That this is both a) realistic in an early 19th-century British caste system and b) a truly terrible business model is not necessarily an accident.
Because unlike other kinds of role-playing games, the one Austenland traffics in is—as several characters remark—fairly dangerous: a visit culminates in romance and an “engagement” to one of the male actors serving as your own personal Austenian love interest. It’s an interesting commentary—though not a universally acknowledged truth—that a single woman can now pay a good fortune for the possession of a fake husband. But Jane is refreshingly disillusioned by Mr. Henry Nobley (J.J. Field), the Darcy-esque nephew of Mrs. Wattlesbrook. Instead, she falls for the suitably disheveled, puppy-eyed house servant Martin (Bret McKenzie or “the cute one” from Flight of the Conchords).
The rest of the film plays out in funny and unexpected ways, even when it follows the basic concepts of Austen’s novels, in which a modern woman gets the guy by sticking up for herself in the face of his superficial contempt as well as the sneers of the rich mean girls. (Jane does make one “bosom friend” in the hilarious Jennifer Coolidge, playing the role she always does, but better.)
Whom Jane ends up with may not seem like the biggest mystery a movie can have. So it’s admirable that Austenland can keep it truly under wraps until the final 15 minutes. It will just have to do until Christopher Nolan or Charlie Kaufman try their hand at a film that begs the question: when everyone is playing pretend, can love be real?
Written by: Jerusha Hess and Shannon Hale
Directed by: Jerusha Hess
Starring: Keri Russell, Jennifer Coolidge, Bret McKenzie, J.J. Field
Running time: 97 min.