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Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
DVD Released: 2/11/2014
All Ratings out of
Review by Mike Long, Posted on 2/11/2014
In 1973, Michael Crichton wrote and directed a movie called Westworld, which introduced the idea of a theme park for adults which immersed them into a recreation of a specific historical period. (This was followed by a sequel entitledFutureworld, which moved the action to a simulated space colony.) The TV series Fantasy Island picked up on this theme as well at times. For the most part, these stories have focused on male fantasies and the possibly violent or moral outcomes of such adventures. Austenland takes this idea and runs it through a female-centric romantic filter, showing that the concept has many possibilities.
Jane Hayes (Keri Russell) is a 30-something single woman who is obsessed with the world of Jane Austen. She loves the books and she especially admires Colin Firth’s performance as Mr. Darcy in Pride & Prejudice. Her apartment is decorated in Austen-related fare and it reads “Mr. Darcy Was Here” over her bed. Jane learns of a vacation destination in Britain called “Austenland”, where the “Regency Era” is re-created. Against the advice of those around her, Jane decides to spend her savings on a trip to Austenland. Upon arrival, she meets a brash fellow traveler named Elizabeth Charming (Jennifer Coolidge), an outlandish woman who knows little of Austen. Once at Austenland, Jane meets the park’s administrator, Mrs. Wattlebrook (Jane Seymour), and learns that she is the only one with the basic package, meaning that she will be treated differently from the others. The visitors are housed on a mansion which is filled with actors portraying various Austen-like characters. Mr. Henry Nobley (JJ Field) is a Darcy-like character who is very cold towards Jane. She finds herself drawn to Martin (Bret McKenzie), the gardener and stable-boy, as he breaks character and seems real to her. As the week wears on, Jane begins to question her decision to visit Austenland.
Based on a novel by Shannon Hale, Austenland presents us with a solid premise. Crichton's ideas in Westworld were clearly influenced by what was happening at the Disney parks, as they allowed guests to visit places like "Tomorrowland" and "Adventureland". These ideas were taken even further by the attractions at Universal Studios, as they made the visitor feel as if they were in one of their favorite movies. So, the thought that Austen-obsessed Jane would want to immerse herself in this world is somewhat far-fetched, but thanks to real-world things like the Harry Potter section of Universal Studios, we immediately grasp what she's thinking. The fact that she gets to "Austenland" and it isn't what she hoped or expected it to be is also something to which we can relate, as we've all had experiences where a real event didn't live up to the one in our mind.
With all of these familiar and relatable ideas, why isn't Austenland a better movie? Blame must rest squarely on the shoulders of Writer/Director Jerusha Hess, who, along with her husband Jared Hess, co-wroteNapoleon Dynamite, Nacho Libre, and Gentlemen Broncos. Making her directorial debut here, she clearly doesn't know what kind of movie she wants Austenland to be. Kudos to her for keeping the movie from becoming an overly soapy romance movie. However, she doesn't know how far she wants to take the film on either side of mainstream or cult movie. Outside of the somewhat unusual premise, one scene plays like a straight-ahead romantic comedy, while the next feels like a much more esoteric and strange film. This stutter-step approach gives the movie no narrative flow. It doesn't help that it's difficult to get a sense of time here, as we simply watch Jane wander from one activity to the next.
The other main issue with the film is Jane and Keri Russell's performance. From the outset, I didn't buy Russell as someone who would decorate her apartment like a child's room. Once she arrives at Austenland, I didn't get a real sense of wonder from her. In short, in order for the story to truly work, Jane would need to be a little more flighty than Russell makes her. The problem is that, as a person, Russell comes across as too intelligent to play someone like Jane. There's also an issue with Jane's behavior throughout the story. She comes off as a pushover at times, which makes it difficult to get behind her.
While Russell seems out of place here, it's Jennifer Coolidge which makes Austenland worth watching. Her character always acts as if she's in a different scene than everyone else and even when she's not front and center in a scene, we can hear her yelling seemingly random things in the background. Most of her moments are laugh-out loud funny. While these moments are memorable, they also further demonstrate how out-of-synch this movie is. Austenland has some good ideas and delivers some laughs, but those looking for either a great romance or a great comedy will be disappointed.
Austenland does get a lot of mileage out of stuffed animals on DVD courtesy of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 adn the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The image is sharp and clear, showing no notable grain and no defects from the source materials. This is a colorful film and the colors, especially the pastels, look good here. The image is never overly dark or bright. I did note that the level of detail suffers here and that the image is soft at times. The DVD carries a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track which provides clear dialogue and sound effects. There are some nice stereo effects here, especially the ones which illustrate sounds coming from off-screen. There are a few examples of surround sound, mostly during the finale. The score sounds fine and never drowns out the dialogue.
The Austenland DVD contains only a handful of extras. We begin with an AUDIO COMMENTARY from Director Jerusha Hess and Producer Stephenie Meyer. A "Q&A" (33 minutes), which was clearly shot at a screening of the film, features Keir Russell, Jennifer Coolidge, Jane Seymour, Bret McKenzie, Georgia King, JJ Field, Ricky Whittle, and James Callis commenting on the movie and fielding questions. The final extra is the THEATRICAL TRAILER for the film.
Review Copyright 2014 by Mike Long