It may be set in the English countryside, but “Austenland” is a big ol' Utah fest.
Produced by “Twilight” mogul and Brigham Young University grad Stephanie Meyer and adapted from Salt Lake native Shannon Hale's book of the same name, "Austenland" is the directorial debut of SLC local Jerusha Hess, who co-wrote "Napoleon Dynamite" and "Nacho Libre" with husband, Jared. That's a lot of information, I know, but the take away should be something along the lines of “Go, Utah.”
Beyond the crew's roots in the Beehive, very little about "Austenland" has a connection to the state. But it's fun to see locals take a story and turn it into a charming, 1800s-meets-modern-day rom com that was acquired Monday by Sony Classics.
Martin (Bret McKenzie) courts Jane (Keri Russell). Photo: Ed Miller
"Austenland" revolves around Jane (Keri Russell), a pathetic yet sweet 30-something woman obsessed with Jane Austen literature and—more importantly—the dashing Mr. Darcy. The obsession is so intense it keeps Jane from doing much of anything that isn't Austen or Darcy related. It botches relationships and makes friends worry she's slipping into a delusional state of 19th teacups and floral wallpaper. She decides she needs to make something more of her infatuation, her version of taking control of her life, and signs up for a three-week immersion style vacation to Austenland—where everything from clothing to meals and manners to romance are rooted in 1800s England and aimed squarely at other Brit-lit addicts.
The only problem for poor Jane, who has taken on the era appropriate name of Miss Jane Erstwhile, is the ire she draws from Austenland proprietor Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour) for selecting the less expensive “copper package,” which Jane sunk all her savings into. With it, she's no more than a second-class citizen at the estate, wearing the era's less stylish clothes and taking her accommodations in the servants' quarters. “An orphan of no fortune, whom we've taken in out of the goodness of our heart,” Wattlesbrook notes.
Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour) and Jane (Russell) squeeze Elizabeth Charming (Jennifer Coolidge) into her corset. Photo: Giles Keyte
Still, a love story is in store for Jane—as it is for all of the female guests who sign up for the experience, including the dippy, sex-crazed and wealthy Elizabeth Charming (Jennifer Coolidge, unsurprising by well played) and pretty, yet shallow Lady Amelia Heartwright (Georgia King). Of course, Jane is wooed by two men—the sweet stable boy, Martin (Bret McKenzie of music duo "Flight of the Conchords") and a real-life Mr. Darcy, Henry Nobley (JJ Feild). Soon, Jane finds herself falling for both men but not knowing what romance is real and which comes with the pre-paid vacation package.
There's not a lot of surprises, and the film treks along with a few cliché romantic comedy moments (boat rides on the pond, a picnic for two), but there's a fun twist at the end that flips things around in true rom-com style. The blending of eras—proper, 1800s England and modern day—brings a playful touch and classical music intermingles with chick flick staples like "Bette Davis Eyes" and "Lady in Red," out of place beyond their sentimental love story value.
"Austenland" delivers just enough humor and romance to draw you in and, for a Sundance film, is completely commercial and relatable to a broad audience. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon in the move theater.
Jan. 22, 8:30 p.m., The MARC, Park City
Jan. 24, noon, Egyptian Theatre, Park City
Jan. 26, 3:30 p.m., Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, SLC
Main photo: Giles Keyte