Mixed Messages in Austenland

I really wanted to like Austenland. I’m a huge Austen fan. I’ve read all her books and can quote from most of them. I’ve seen every television or movie version of “Pride and Prejudice” out there and own four of them, including the Bollywood Bride and Prejudice. And yes, I have a crush on Mr. Darcy.

Austenland should have appealed to me. The story is that of a rabid Austen fan (“I memorized the first three chapters of Pride and Prejudice when I was 13″) who spends all her savings to go to England and live for a week totally immersed in the Regency era at a manor where all guests are promised “romance.” This sounds like a fun vacation to me. Until we have holodecks or time machines, this kind of extended cosplay is the only way we have to experiencing life in another time and place. And sure, I’d like to live for a little while in a world where politeness and courtesy between men and women are high priorities.

But I couldn’t get into the movie. The film cuts to the chase too soon; we get a quick succession of brief scenes and an expository friend to tell us that Jane Hayes, the heroine, is obsessed with Austen to the point that it’s disrupting her ability to 1. pick a boyfriend who’s not a loser and 2. live in the real world. Yet Jane has friends, a job, her own large apartment, and money in the bank, so what’s the problem? (HINT: the expository friend is PREGNANT.)

Despite her friend’s opposition, off Jane goes to England and meets the first of several caricatures she’ll be interacting with on her stay. Here’s where the movie began to lose me. Almost every person at the Regency Manor is exaggerated and ridiculous. The two other women guests are wealthy and clearly hoping not just to find romance but sex. The men are hired actors, and despite one character’s assurance that the owner of the manor hires “the best,” they are terrible. The owner herself despises Jane, who could only afford the “copper” experience and thus is treated as a poor relation by everyone except the handsome young coachman who also seems to do all the hard work around the estate. Then there’s the Mr. Darcy character, “Henry Nobley,” who turns up his nose at all of them.

He is, in fact, the voice of the film, speaking for the film-makers themselves, who despise the play-acting Austenites as much as he does. And Jane soon despises them too. She and Henry form an alliance, which mostly consists of agreeing that they are better than the others, for they have a true interest in the time period (we find out eventually that Henry is actually an historian) while the others are just playing dress-up.

At one point the house party is roped into putting on a play. Both Henry and Jane are revealed as terrible actors, and later Henry tells Jane that this means that neither of them is good at pretending to be someone they are not. But everyone else in the group is also a terrible actor, so the exposition is once again at odds with what the film is actually showing us.

Eventually Jane finds out that even the coachman is an actor, and for some reason this fills her with such disgust that she leaves the manor, saying she wants “something REAL.” We’re supposed to be happy for her because finally Jane has freed herself from her obsession with Austen, no longer wants to live in that time, and no doubt is going home to get married and have babies. Which is what this film defines as success for a woman. In the first gathering of the party, it comes out that Jane has a “tragic” history of a series of failed relationships. Everyone looks pityingly at the poor woman who is OVER 30 and NOT MARRIED. “Tick tock” says one of the men, smiling sadly at her. The “real life” that her Austen obsession has robbed Jane of is marriage and babies.

Jane Austen herself never married, never had children. Instead, she wrote some of the greatest books of the 19th century, books that have never gone out of print and are more popular today than ever. This film banks on that popularity to draw in the very people who love Austen, and then sneers at them.

And this is not the worst of the film’s mixed messages. For most of the movie, we’re being told that fantasy is bad and that we need to live in reality every moment. Yet at the very end, Henry shows up at Jane’s door and, when she tells him she is done with fantasy, says “you’ve got it backwards. Jane, you are my fantasy.” Apparently, while it’s wrong for a woman to have fantasies about the kind of man she’d like to be with, it’s a good thing if a man wants a fantasy woman.

If Austen had written this movie, yes, some of the people would have been caricatures. But she would have also peopled the movie with reasonable and interesting characters who would have helped Jane see past her own blind spots and stand up for herself. Henry would have never told Jane that she was his fantasy, but instead have made a speech about how her integrity helped him to see his own shortcomings and realize what he valued most in life. One or both of them would have defied the very people who were trying to make them conform to society’s expectations, and together they would have formed a true partnership of like minds. But Austen did not write it, and instead we get a movie populated almost entirely by caricatures in which one fantasy is exchanged for another one by two people who are, basically, snobs.

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