'Austenland,' a family-friendly romantic comedy at Sundance

Published: Thursday, Jan. 17 2013 3:15 p.m. MST

Keri Russel (Jane Hayes) and JJ Feild (Mr. Henry Nobley) perform in the movie "Austenland."

Giles Keyte

If you have longed to live in the time of formal introductions, empire waist gowns and gentleman callers wearing cravats with buttoned-up vests, you too may have fallen into the Jane Austen trap.

Shannon Hale, a Utah author, capitalized on this period fascination in her novel "Austenland," which has been turned into a screenplay and will premiere on Friday, Jan. 18, at the Sundance Film Festival. Directing the film is Utahn Jerusha Hess, who has found success at Sundance previously as co-writer of "Napoleon Dynamite."

The Hale-Hess combination has produced a family-friendly romantic comedy that has sold out all scheduled Sundance screenings.

"We always just have these weird movies where people are like, 'What is this?' and then they are like, 'Oh wait, I can have my 3-year-old watch this,'" Hess said. "I was able to bring that funny 'Hess humor' to it. It's a little off the wall at times."

The comedy may be off the wall, but Hess, along with her husband, Jared, have become naturals at producing films that appeal to a wide range of people.

"It's something we never really give a lot of thought to; it's just how our sense of humors are," Hess said. "I think it takes a little bit more effort to think of jokes that aren't raunchy. I don't know how we've hit the nail on the head to be so universally liked, but it's an awesome thing."

Hale also assured that the film's message and content would be consistent with the book.

"I don't think people who were fans of the book, and liked it for not being raunchy, will be disappointed," Hale said. "I don't let my kids see PG-13 movies, and I would let them see this."

Hess said that its innocence and light-hearted feel may have been a factor in the film's acceptance by Sundance.

"I think it was just like the anti-Sundance movie," Hess said. "It just felt like after so many dark or serious or life-altering movies they just wanted to see something fun and light — and that's exactly what 'Austenland' is."

The story begins with a 30-something, successful woman who has given up on finding real love because nothing can compare to the romance found in Austen's "Pride and Prejudice," particularly the BBC production with Collin Firth as the irresistible Mr. Darcy.

Several big names can be found in the cast, such as Keri Russell as Jane Hayes and Jane Seymour as Mrs. Wattlesbrook.

Stephenie Meyer, author of the Twilight series, also joined as producer in order to participate in the film version of a book she loved. Meyer's first review of the book said, "Adorable! This is the best tribute to obsessed Austen freaks (like me) that I've ever read."

And according to Hale, the movie also will not disappoint.

"I could not be happier," Hale said of the finished product. "I thought it was hysterical and sweet and swoon-worthy."

But if it wasn't for a simple lunch meeting, this anticipated romantic comedy would not be part of Sundance this year.

Hess had read some of Hale's books, such as "Goose Girl" and "The Princess Academy," but "Austenland" was far from their discussion. It wasn't until saying goodbye that Hale gave a copy of "Austenland" to Hess.

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