“AUSTENLAND” — Kerri Russell, JJ Feild, Bret McKenzie, Jennifer Coolidge, James Callis, Georgia King, Rupert Vansittart, Ricky Whittle, Jane Seymour; not rated (mild language, mild sexuality)
The target audience of “Austenland” can be divided into two groups — “Jane Austen fans and people who find Jane Austen fans funny,” Jerusha Hess said of the film that marks her debut as a director.
“So, you can guess which one I am,” Hess said with a smile during a question-and-answer session after Tuesday night’s Sundance screening of “Austenland.”
For those in either group, “Austenland” is a light-hearted and romantic comedy that is delightful to watch and doesn't take itself too seriously. The Sundance audience was laughing out loud — and afterward a few of the men in attendance said they enjoyed it.
Jane Hayes (Keri Russell) is a 30-something who is obsessed with all things Jane Austen and has deemed Mr. Darcy as the perfect man — specifically, Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy in the BBC version of “Pride and Prejudice.” To help gain perspective, she finds a pricey Jane Austen immersion experience, sells her Toyota Tercel, leaves behind her Mr. Darcy cut-out and heads to England.
The immersion experience, run by the very proper Mrs. Wattlesworth (wonderfully executed by Jane Seymour) includes actors playing potential love interests for each of the three women, formal dinners, turns around the garden, other Regency-era activities like croquet, needlepoint and shooting, and no modern devices like cellphones. The experience is expected to end with a formal ball and a proposal for the ladies.
What Jane — named Miss Erstwhile for the immersion experience — finds is a roller coaster of emotions as she navigates her expectations and her heart, attempting to figure out who is acting and who isn’t.
Russell gives Jane a very realistic yet sweet personality that is very easy to root for.
Jennifer Coolidge’s performance as Miss Elizabeth Charming, another immersion experience attendee, is cause for most of the laughter as her spot-on and unpredictable lines throughout the film nearly steal the show.
“(She) doesn’t like to learn lines,” Hess said of Coolidge about whether her zingers were scripted or her own — and apparently, they were very much her own.
“They (Russell and Coolidge) did balance each other very well,” Hess said, adding that Russell was pregnant during the filming.
The other members of the cast — Georgia King as Lady Amelia Heartwright, the estate’s gentlemen of British actors J.J. Feild as Mr. Nobley, James Callis as Col. Andrews, Ricky Whittle as Capt. George East and New Zealander Bret McKenzie as Martin — play actors portraying Regency-era characters, with varying degrees of spunk and hilarity.
And keep an eye out for the travel agent, who is played by Hess’ husband, Jared.
It’s based on the book “Austenland” by Utah author Shannon Hale, who wrote the script with Jerusha Hess.
“It was fun and a lot easier” to adapt a book to a script — especially with the author helping — than it was come up with an original script, like with “Napoleon Dynamite," Hess said.
“It was a fun, accessible and cinematic book,” Hess said.
While poking fun at another era can tend to end up with corny or sarcastic stereotypes, “Austenland” doesn’t sink to that and is still fun and humorous.
“This movie was a joy to make,” Hess said. She later added during the question and answer, “it seemed like friends getting together and making a movie.”
And their fun as they spent 39 days in England filming is reflective in “Austenland” as it’s an enjoyable film where laughing — or a least a few chuckles — simply can’t be helped.
As for a screen adaptation of Hale’s sequel “Midnight in Austenland,” Hess didn’t rule it out but did say she and her husband had recently adopted a baby and are busy being parents, and Jared Hess has a project he is working on.
“Austenland” hasn’t been rated and there is occasional mild language and innuendo.
“Austenland,” which was produced by Stephenie Meyer and Gina Mingacci, was picked up by Sony Pictures Worldwide for distribution in the United States. And Hess did hint that it would be distributed in the United Kingdom, too.
“Austenland” is not rated and has mild language and mild sexual innuendo; running time: 97 minutes.
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