'Austenland,' a movie in want of some sense

The women of "Austenland" (from left): Jennifer Coolidge as Miss Elizabeth Charming, Keri Russell as Jane Hayes, and Georgia King as Lady Amelia Heartwright.

To the best of my knowledge, the quote "Run free, little Sparkle!" does not appear in a Jane Austen book.

It does, however, appear in Austenland. Bret McKenzie, half of the Kiwi duo Flight of the Conchords, delivers the line to the foal he has just delivered in the stable of the titular estate - an "immersive" theme park for Jane Austen obsessives. He is Martin, a groundsman with a glint in his eye, and next to him in the barn is Jane Hayes (Keri Russell), an American who memorized Pride and Prejudice when she was 13, and who now, some 17 or so years later, keeps a life-size standup of Mr. Darcy in her bedroom (the Colin Firth one, from the BBC production).

She also has a giant Regency style dollhouse, and a big "Darcy Was Here" sign over her quilted bed. Does this woman have a life?


Which is why she spends her savings to pass a few days in a resort in the English countryside where guests don bonnets and frocks like the Bennet girls, meet at dinner with faux lords and ladies, debate the place of women in society, and attend an elegant ball - hopefully in the arms of a handsome Austen reenactor.

Austenland begs a couple of questions: One is why, Keri Russell, why? The other: Where is Christopher Guest when you need him? Who better to send up this world than the man behind the deft, deadpan parodies Best In Show and A Mighty Wind? He can mock lovingly. Jerusha Hess, the director of Austenland, can only mock lamely. (Hess cowrote the screenplay with Shannon Hale, author of the novel.)

Mentioning Guest is not altogether beside the point. The writer/director is of noble English stock, for one, and Jennifer Coolidge, a member of the Guest repertory troupe, costars in Austenland, playing Miss Elizabeth Charming, a wealthy, witless Yank who arrives at the estate along with Jane.

As for Jane, she has been rechristened Miss Erstwhile by Austenland's snooty overseer, Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour). And, like the heroines with whom she so intensely identifies, Jane/Erstwhile finds herself in a romantic quandary. On the one hand, there is that rascally stable boy. On the other, there is a fussy and distracted Mr. Henry Nobley (JJ Feild).

Whom should she love? Who will love her?

And will she return to America a changed woman, or merely a woman with no change in her sweet little purple and gold reticule?


Austenland ** (Out of four stars)

Directed by Jerusha Hess. With Keri Russell, Jennifer Coolidge, JJ Feild, Bret McKenzie, and Jane Seymour. Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.

Running time: 1 hour, 37 mins.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (adult themes)

Playing at: Ritz East and Cinemark at Ritz Center/NJ

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @Steven_Rea. Read his blog, On Movies Online, at www.inquirer.com/onmovies



Directed by Jerusha Hess. With Ricky Whittle, Keri Russell, James Callis, JJ Feild, Jennifer Coolidge, Jane Seymour, Bret McKenzie, Georgia King. Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.

Running time: 1 hours, 37 minutes.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (for some suggestive content and innuendo).