Film Title: Austenland
Director: Jerusha Hess
Starring: Keri Russell, J J Field, Bret McKenzie, Jennifer Coolidge
Running Time: 97 min
It is a truth universally acknowledged that all reviews of Jane Austen adaptations and peripherals begin with the phrase “it is a truth universally acknowledged”. If you find that joke lame and forced, then you would be well advised to give a wide berth to this largely useless adaptation of a book by Shannon Hale.
This is the sort of film that, when taking its characters to England, shows us a montage of Big Ben, Horse Guards and a red phone box. We are not at home to subtlety or nuance. Worse, we are not at home to competence. Can Jerusha Hess, making her debut as director, really hope to do this for a living?
It’s not an appalling high concept for a movie. The always likable Keri Russell plays an Jane Austen fanatic who spends her savings on a trip to an English holiday complex dedicated to the writer. There she will flirt with actors dressed as Georgian archetypes before settling on the one who most resembles Colin Firth. There is a narrative conundrum at the story’s heart: anybody who behaves so foolishly is unlikely to win our sympathies. But a committed film-maker could make it work.
Sadly, almost everything is bungled. The country house is absurdly under-populated, the internal rules of the historical recreation are constantly flouted, and the performers have received ruinously insufficient vocal coaching. It proves quite impossible to tell whether, with any particular personality, we are looking at an actor who genuinely can’t do a decent English accent or at an actor playing an actor who can’t do a decent English accent (if you get my muddled drift).
The film is so acutely directed towards American sensibilities that, when a Kiwi character, who speaks in his own nation’s broad vowels, announces that he is not really English, it’s supposed to be some sort of revelation.
Jennifer Coolidge, playing a less cultured guest, is every bit as amusing as we have come to expect. Unfortunately, aware that she’s the only funny thing in the piece, the film-makers over-work her to an extent that would trouble Japanese overseers on the construction of the Burma Railway. She deserves better.