A costumed pageant and the wild spoof of a costumed pageant, Austenland is a clever romp for Jane Austen fans and for those who see Jane Austen mania as an infinitely expanding punchline.  Jerusha Hess’s adaptation of Shannon Hale’s 2008 novel about an Austen maven visiting the promised land – a Jane Austen theme manor – will have a global reach, just as Austen does.

Austenland is a satire of a pilgrimage. Jane Hayes (Keri Russell) a die-hard Austen addict of 31 who lives and sleeps in Austen memorabilia, travels to England to an estate ruled by  Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour) where everything is Austen, including the actors who court Austen-crazed visitors with decorous dalliance. Ripe for romance (and her own Mr. Darcy), Jane’s Austen collection lacks one thing, a man.   

Innocents abroad are easy laughable prey for the Austenland Brits. Once Jerusha Hess establishes the silly susceptibility of the Americans – Jennifer Coolidge arrives with malapropisms and the worst attempt at a British accent since Madonna – a troupe of Austen players goes in for the kill.

The result is a mannered festive vaudeville farce, thanks to a cast that balances updated Regency pomp with the cynicism of modern theme tourism, to the tune of music that leverages historical anachronism.  As James Callis waxes an absurd moustache as a visibly gay suitor courting Elizabeth Charming, JJ Field is diffident, and Ricky Whittle plays a soap opera actor cast improbably by Austenland as a “Captain” who returns from triumphs in the Caribbean. These plays within a play hit high camp at a Jane Austen swimming pool. 

Hess, who co-wrote Napoleon Dynamite, a generational hit with its own mannerisms, keeps the comedy light, despite a can-you-top-this inanity that piles on the satire. James Merifield’s elaborate production design compounds the Austen illusion and the parody, decorating the manor and its grounds with so many details that Austen infinity sets in. So will the demand to see that spectacle multiple times.

Keri Russell, earnest in Austen awe and game for the send-up, brings an agile complexity to her man-seeking character without suppressing the laughs.  Deft mockery aside, this is a romance, after all. Hess never abandons that Austen core.
- ScreenDaily


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