‘Austenland’ — not even Kerri Russell can save the movie from itself

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

The biggest surprise — may I venture, the only surprise— in the wretched new movie, “Austenland” comes in the very first scene: yes, that’s Jane Seymour playing the Edwardian dowager-monstress who runs the fantasy getaway which gives the movie its title.

Based on a 2007 novel, “Austenland” has a premise not unlike “Westworld” or “Jurassic Park.”

Namely, beware the perfect-seeming theme-park vacation.

The usually unsinkable Kerri Russell plays Jane Hayes who is an out-and-out Jane Austen nut. Or perhaps nut case would be more accurate.

I mean, is there anything truly wrong with having a little crush on Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy in the mini-series, “Pride and Prejudice?”

Of course not.

But keeping a life-size cut-out of Firth in your living room, along with dozens of lace doilies and a collection of twee tea cups… well, that borders on obsession.

The creepy kind.

So it’s no wonder that Jane chooses to blow her life savings on a dream getaway to something called Austenland, a place that offers a full immersion into the world of all things Jane Austen.

Austen-ish romance included.  Which sits just fine with Jane who has earlier explained that one reason she’s still a singleton is “All the good men are fictional.”

There are the makings of a brilliant little satire in Shannon Hale’s book, which reminds us that life for women in 19th-century England wasn’t all grand balls and stormy romance-drenched afternoons. Much of what women did — if they were of a certain means, that is — was sit around. They could sew, crochet, gossip. Maybe take a short stroll.  Perhaps read a book.

Mostly, they spent their time waiting for the guys to get back from hunting or whatever men of leisure did to take up their day.

Unfortunately, director/co-writer Jerusha Hess, best known for creating “Napoleon Dynamite,” either doesn’t understand Austen-mania or satire or both. The film is as scattershot as spaghetti thrown against a wall to see what sticks.

True, the Austenland immersion takes place in a manor grand enough for the Downtown Abbey crowd. Yet, despite the dozens of servants who line up to welcome patrons, the place feels curiously underpopulated — on both the guest and the employee level.

Along with Jane, whose stretched finances reduce her to the bargain-basement version of immersion, there’s Jennifer Coolidge (ever so memorable in “Best in Show”) as a crassly wealthy American who wouldn’t know Jane Austen from Jane Fonda.

She’s husband-hunting and thinks she’ll look pretty good dressed as a wench. On the actor side of the immersion are JJ Feild as a disdainful Mr. Darcy stand-in, James Callis as a pseudo officer who’d be happier dressed as a wench himself, and Bret McKenzie, as an earthy stableboy who seems to have wandered in from “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.”

What “Austenland” could stand is someone along the lines of Yul Brynner’s malfunctioning robot-gunslinger in “Westworld.”

Maybe a cannibalistic carriage horse?

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

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