The aptly named Jane Hayes (Keri Russell) has spent her life devoted to Jane Austen and the illusion of Mr. Darcy. She’s read all the books, has all the collectibles, including a life-size cardboard cutout of Colin Firth, now all she needs is the flesh and blood man. When opportunity comes knocking, she invests everything she has into a Jane Austen “experience” vacation in idyllic England. Ironically everything she has gets her the bare bones accommodations, but even in dowdy governess attire she manages to win the interest of Martin, (Bret McKenzie) a farmhand, and Mr. Henry Nobley (JJ Feild), a Regency-era gentleman. Both “love interests” are played by actors hired by the theme park proprietor Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour) to indulge the clients’ fantasies but despite copious amounts of eye candy and well-placed socks, it’s all good chaste fun.
With this setup, Austenland has the potential to be a top-notch farce of the sensibilies that lead otherwise normal people to unhealthy levels of fandom. It hints at the ethical gray areas of turning vulnerability into profits, and what can be lost at the expense of experiencing real emotions in a fantasy world. Instead we get a formulaic “romantic” procedural that starts with a doe-eyed woman who goes on a journey to find her confidence, gets kicked around, decides she’s had enough, starts playing by her own rules, goes home, only to embrace the very thing she spent a lot of time (and in this case money) telling herself she didn’t need.
This film also suffers structurally, leaving one to wonder just how much was left on the cutting room floor. The film starts with a rapid fire and oddly sequenced montage that shows Jane’s obsession with Austen extending back to high school. Once Jane reaches England the pacing gets even choppier with random events enunciating each plot point making the film just as eager as the audience to reach the finish. There’s also an inexplicable animosity that Mrs. Wattlebrook has for Jane the second she gets to the park that is never explained and can only be reconciled by Jane’s lack of ability to spring for the more expensive vacation package.
The most disappointing thing about Austenland is how forgettable it is as a film. Armed with some pretty intriguing ideas it never has a hope or desire to explore, the film instead meanders along in a non-sensical fashion right to the conclusion we all are programmed to accept: even when we give up our dependency on unearned fantasies of happily ever after, Prince Charming inevitably shows up at our door where we stand with open arms.
Austenland opens today in Philly area theaters.