COMEDY: Austenland (2013)

Austenland (UK/ USA, 2013)
Directed by Jerusha Hess
Starring Keri Russell, J. J. Feild, Bret McKenzie, Jennifer Coolidge

In my review of A Royal Affair, I stated that period drama was "one of the easiest genres to send up, sneer at or actively despise." For every highly acclaimed film or TV series which pops up on our radar, any production which candidly emphasises archaic or impractical forms of language, costume or social custom presents itself all too easily to be ribbed. It is both fitting and ironic that Jane Austen's works have become such a reliable source of parody, given that she herself was parodying the Gothic romances of her day when she wrote the likes of Northanger Abbey.
TV has a long tradition of nailing such parodies, in everything from Dead Ringers sketches to Julia Davis' jet-black comedy Hunterby via the Pride and Prejudice Land from Red Dwarf. But whether because of their length or the different style of writing involved, films which have attempted the same thing have so often come a cropper. Austenland is in the same pitiful club as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, positioning itself as a clever piss-take which ultimately falls so far short that you wondered why anybody bothered. While not the worst parody film ever made - none of the Wayans family are involved, thank God - it squanders whatever talent lies in its cast and is frequently painful to watch.
I've often complained in my reviews about how material best suited to a five-minute sketch or a half-hour TV episode is regularly stretched out to form thin and disappointing films. It's an accusation frequently levelled against films from the Saturday Night Live stable, with offerings like Coneheads and It's Pat! consisting of little more than a single joke and the misguided belief that an audience will find it funny for 90 minutes. But it's a trend that's equally common in all genres, from third-rate children's films (Good Burger) to upmarket psychological thrillers (Carnage).
Austenland contains enough material for a half-decent five-minute sketch - ten if you were feeling charitable. Despite being adapted from a full-length novel, its premise is ridiculously thin and not particularly original: the four-part miniseries Lost in Austen took a very similar concept and achieved much better results. Mark Kermode put it best when he wrote in The Observer: "what might have made a five-minute skit becomes an extended exercise in taking a joke for a walk round a country house, before allowing it to crap on the terrace and then stamping it to death on the manicured lawn."
There is undoubtedly a certain amount of merit in having modern-day characters rip outdated attitudes and social niceties to shreds. In their quest for historical accuracy or fidelity, period dramas often fall into the trap of condoning some deeply questionable attitudes, whether towards women, poor people or people who don’t happen to be white. Equally, there is plenty of scope, and much justification, for taking apart films which try all-too-consciously to be right-on with present-day society. In short, one can take the piss out of Emma and Amistad at the same time, without it coming across as having one’s cake and eating it.
Sadly, Austenland has neither the brains, nor the ambition, nor the talent to contemplate anything so nuanced for more than a fleeting moment. At best it’s a sub-par Bill and Ted with petticoats, or an Abbott and Costello film with weaker jokes, whose main characters’ primary purpose is to be shoved into shot with historical figures (or stereotypes) and comment on how silly and stuffy they are. One by one ideas for a half-decent film or shred of character development present themselves, and one by one the film dallies with them like an awkward dance partner before something else distracts it and it jumps to another unfortunate soul.
At its most superficial, Austenland could have used its comic conceit to expose some of the harsh realities of Regency society, with our leading lady learning to accept that she can find love in the modern world – or at least, that the past isn’t all it’s cracked up to be once Colin Firth is out of the picture. Not every new take on a period novel has to be as tough and unrelenting as Andrea Arnold’s bruising take on Wuthering Heights. But there is scope here for an albeit well-worn, cheesy story about scales falling from the main character’s eyes, with the rigid class system and unforgiving social etiquette being challenged by her growing self-esteem and sense of worth.
We do get hints of this in the second act of the film, particularly when Jane (Keri Russell) is wooed by Bret McKenzie, best known for his work on Flight of the Concords. We play along with his rough New Zealand charm, settling for generic convention if only because the first act has been so shaky. But the film reaches a point where it struggles to know what it wants; it fails to properly set up a Bridget Jones-esque love triangle, with Jane becoming impulsive as McKenzie’s Martin gets more and more unpleasant and self-absorbed. In the end, the payoff with J. J. Field (trying and failing to be Tom Hiddlestone) feels like a forced last resort; it isn’t credible on its own terms and it’s not a natural continuation of the plot.
Equally, the film could have played more on the disjunct between the period characters and the actors who inhabit them. Michael Winterbottom’s brilliant A Cock and Bull Story deftly combined the demands of period drama with the very postmodern, contemporary comedy borne out of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s rivalry. Winterbottom’s uneven record as a director aside (see Trishna or The Look of Love, for instance), he had a fantastic understanding of how to deconstruct historical values while making very pertinent comments about our present-day ambitions and obsessions. With Austenland, however, the scenes of the actors out of costume give us just a teasing, fleeting glimpse of the better film we could be seeing, as though we were peering through a letterbox from within our 19th-century prison.
Having botched its attempted at clichéd romantic comedy, and discarded the prospect of postmodern deconstruction, the film also contemplates seeing itself as a much broader comedy. The performance of Jennifer Coolidge (who was very good in Legally Blonde) gives one of two impressions; either that director Jerusha Hess didn’t really know what she wanted, or that she was unable to direct her with sufficient skill, allowing her star to go painfully off-piste just as Johnny Depp had done with Pirates of the Caribbean. Coolidge, like Nicolas Cage before her, has a tendency to become grating and over-the-top when not properly reined in, and while she has her moments here, she could have been so much better.
Austenland is Hess’ first and so far only film as a director, and it shows. She’s hardly a stranger to the film industry, having written Napoleon Dynamite, Nacho Libre and Gentlemen Broncos, all directed by her husband Jared. But as I argued in my review of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, writers do not always make natural directors, often because they fail to marry visual storytelling to their beloved dialogue and stage directions. The screenplay for Austenland may not be the greatest ever written, but in the hands of another director the film that resulted could have looked a lot less inept.
The visuals of Austenland try to play up the period details to create a lavish sensibility, but only succeed in making everything seem cheap and fake. Cinematographer Larry Smith cut his teeth working with Stanley Kubrick on Eyes Wide Shut, and would later prove his worth by shooting Calvary and Only God Forgives. But here his colour palette is over-saturated, turning what should be elegant architecture and refined costumes into a series of gaudy greeting cards. Likewise the editing by Nick Fenton is slapdash and the score by Ilan Eshkeri is an enormously poor relation to his excellent work on Stardust and Still Alice. Even without the weak script or the uncertain direction, this film has little sense about its sensibility.
Austenland is a deeply disappointing and infuriating offering in which every shred of potential is briefly played for laughs and then cast aside. It isn’t the worst parody ever to grace the big screen, being less mean-spirited than Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me and funnier than anything farted out by the Wayans stable. But it offers far too little return for one’s time, for fans of Jane Austen and those new to period drama, and it will take a great deal of persuasion to warrant a re-watch any time soon.


NEXT REVIEW: Minions (2015)