★★ (out of 5 stars)
If you’re a single, 30-something fan of Jane Austen, there’s seemingly no better vacation spot than Austenland, a British manor that promises to make your fantasy a reality by immersing you in the Regency era of the famed novelist. Yet despite an interesting premise, this excursion quickly grows tedious in the hands of first-time director Jerusha Hess, who exhibits misplaced pride in her own mediocre screenplay and too little sense and sensibility.
The charming but lightweight Keri Russell plays Jane Hayes, who has been a worshipper of everything Austen since her high-school literature classes. Not able to find a man who lives up to Pride and Prejudice’s Mr. Darcy, she’s remained single, hoping for 19th-century-style romance. So, naturally, when she hears of a luxurious English estate offering the world’s “only immersive Austen experience,” she jumps at the chance for a vacation of a lifetime.
Upon her arrival, things don’t go quite as planned. Not able to afford the more extravagant accommodations, she’s relegated to something akin to servants’ quarters and assigned a guest name – as all visitors are, to help them disappear into their characters – that leaves a bit to be desired: Jane Erstwhile.
She’s also not sure what to make of the male employees, who have been hired to play parts straight out of an Austen novel, right down to taking the guests hunting, teaching croquet, serving authentic period dishes such as sheep’s eyeballs and even wooing them.
Ironically, all this acting leaves Jane longing for attention from the seemingly down-to-earth stable boy (Bret McKenzie) and eschewing the fake charms of the manor house. “I’ll go crazy if I have to sit up in that house all afternoon,” she says, disillusioned and questioning not just her vacation choice but her own obsession with a love that might exist only in books.
It all sounds intriguing and might have ended up as a clever commentary on fantasy and obsession – and almost does, thanks to a nice little twist. But just as Jane’s own experience isn’t exactly what she expected, we too are led astray by a clunky script and a director who makes one bad choice after another. The pacing is poor, and odd musical selections abound, from a cover version of Bette Davis Eyes to a disastrous end-credits montage to Jane’s singing of the hip-hop hit “Hot in Herre.” (Yes, really.)
As one of the guests, Jennifer Coolidge (of Christopher Guest fame) does most of the heavy comedic lifting and despite some slick slapstick and a few funny lines, she wears thin thanks to her repeated bungling of “tally-ho” and other British clichés and her contrived Cockney dialect. Even Jane Seymour, as the property manager, can’t muster much believability. Only Georgia King, as the third guest – why are there just three? – and JJ Feild, as the resident Mr. Darcy, bring much freshness to a film in which the only polished element is the silver. The Lady Catherine de Bourgh would not approve.