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snowmen

Film recommendation: Austenland

I'm a Jane Austen geek, so when I hear that there's yet another Jane-Austen-themed movie out there, I must seek it out and watch it. A friend recommended Austenland, and I'm so glad she did, because I thoroughly enjoyed it!


Austenland contains several layers of structure within it simultaneously, composed in a genius, multiple-meta-levels fashion.

Surface level: a classic romantic comedy structure. Because the actors were so good, I actually started shipping the two leads really hard, so it worked for me as a romance. Because the actors and the writing were so good, I laughed a lot, so it worked for me as a comedy.

Next level down (meta level #1): a brilliant, psychologically-incriminating commentary on the root of modern romantic comedies / romances (i.e., the work of Jane Austen) and our response to all things period romance and modern romantic comedy. The story made me laugh at myself and also squirm uncomfortably.

Third level down (meta level #2): a fantastic Pride & Prejudice (P&P) pastiche. All the key characters were immediately introduced and blatantly named (this is where the two meta levels intertwine perfectly), so if you are really familiar with the original work, you can see the whole plot coming from a mile away. (And yet, it's never boring, because it's so well written that the growing questions of what is real and what isn't, the we-can-never-forget constant juxtaposition of modern and period circumstances, and the psychological maturation of the heroine leave us with just a niggling doubt that maybe this story will turn the expected P&P characters and plot on its head somehow, or twist it at right angles. You're drawn to keep watching. Will they or won't they fulfill their assigned roles?)

Fourth level down (meta level #3): a brilliant re-creation of the character-is-plot point-of-view (POV) P&P transitions. A huge aspect of P&P's stylistic subtlety and cleverness is perfectly reproduced in this modern/not-modern setting.

Let me explain. Just as P&P is told almost entirely from the female protagonist's POV, so is Austenland. The heroine's psychological journey is no less profound and we identify with her and cheer her all along the way. The Mr. Darcy equivalent character is immediately noticeable and compelling, by so perfectly aping the Mr. Darcy stereotype, of course, but (and here is the REAL brilliance of Austenland) just as in P&P, there is a key transition where although the story continues to be told from the woman's POV, suddenly the viewer/reader sees through the woman's fallacy to the truth of the man's POV and the *rest* of the story is about us cheering *him* on, seeing things from his POV (despite most of the time still being spent with her), and finally being able to see both of the characters more clearly and shipping them like mad.

The key transition into his POV—while still remaining thoroughly tied to hers—is a brilliant move, paying such thorough tribute to Austen's genius that it's quite clear that Shannon Hale and Jerusha Hess, the writers of the Austenland screenplay, have a full and thorough command of the original novel.

I've seen other modern P&P adaptations (Bridget Jones's Diary, Bride & Prejudice, I'm sure some teen flick or two), but they rarely make that key POV switch happen so seamlessly, and they almost never carry the original structure out to its completion. Something about putting the story in the new /modern setting (or maybe just putting the story in non-Austen hands) causes the plot to twist off in some other direction, in one way or another. Austenland, by contrast, comes the closest to really capturing the original genius of P&P, while layering on top of it even more awesomeness in the form of modern social commentary and laugh-out-loud comedy.

Austenland has great acting throughout (Keri Russell and JJ Feild are excellent!), wonderful writing, and a lot to gnaw on for the Austen aficionado. I imagine the general public and most of the movie critics, not being deeply familiar with Austen's work, would miss most of the subtext—and thus the genius—of Austenland. But for those in the know...you will LOVE it.



...and if you really enjoyed the movie but felt like it ended before the story was over, I highly recommend two pieces of Austenland fanfic, Austenland Extended and e-mails from Austenland. Both stories are hilarious and do a good job of continuing the universe and adding some cute twists, while keeping the characters thoroughly in-character. The latter fic is a clever example of a modern epistolary tale, with very well-drawn original characters, despite their being in the background.

Comments

I'm curious, have you tried Pride and Prejudice and Zombies?
I've read it, yes. It's cute. It does some amusing stuff at the beginning, but, like most variations of that sort, it kind of falls apart and doesn't end in a really tight, satisfying way. I lost interest when it drifted in repeated scenes of carnage and really didn't explore the characters or the world in particularly interesting ways. But for a fun bit of silly horror, yes, it's amusing. What did you think of it?
For what it is, I thought it was really well done and very tongue in cheek. The author clearly understood the source material and had a lot of fun both mocking and honoring the original work. The "unmentionables" is such a great way to put the zombie apocalypse.

There was a mad rush of similar novels "Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters" for example, "Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter" and none of them really captured the charm.
Yes, "unmentionables" was a good name for them.

I remember the other novels, and that there was a movie made of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which I think was totally panned by critics and moviegoers alike...