Like the devotees of musical bands like Pink Floyd, the Grateful Dead and Phish, I will not begin to understand the reason that people are so devoted to the works of Jane Austen, but I respect their motivations for doing so, if nothing else because there are so many of them. Moreover, I also respect the facet of any cinematic infringement (for lack of a better word at the moment) onto the values of a group of fans that it should be handled properly. Almost as if doing a film on Jane Austen is emotionally tantamount to a film from Marvel or DC, and it may be. In Austenland, the foundation of a film (based on a generally well-received novel) existed had to serve as encouragement.
Shannon Hale adapted her novel into a screenplay along with Jerusha Hess (Gentlemen Broncos), the latter of whom directed. Jane Hayes (Keri Russell, Felicity) is a bit of an Austen fan and of "Pride and Prejudice," and has been since she was a teenager. Now in her 30s, she decides to go on a vacation to "Austenland," an all-immersive experience for Austen fans located in England and run by a Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour, Wedding Crashers). The premise of Austenland is simple; dress and speak in the era, even to the point where romance ‘blossoms' at the end. She does not have the best time in Austenland, spurred on by a rather standoffish gentleman named Mr. Nobely (JJ Feild, Captain America: The First Avenger), and starts to question what value Austen has for her in her life.
Problems seem to plague Austenland throughout, but I'll get to them in a second. First, the performances from Russell and her co-star Jennifer Coolidge (American Pie) in and of themselves are not bad. Both are willing to take bold steps with their characters whether there are notes of physical comedy (Russell) or flat out going for the jokes (Coolidge). There is a sort of pleasant neuroses going on with Jane as well, as if Russell is channeling a 1970s Diane Keaton. Coolidge does a great job with a bad American accent and plays off of her predetermined romantic interest in Austenland nicely, portrayed by James Callis (Battlestar Galactica).
Within the rest of the film however, things are a mess. Events between Russell and Field's character are told in such a manner that is an uninspired interpretation of events of "Pride and Prejudice." A supporting character in Austenland is a ‘farmhand' named Martin, played by Bret McKenzie (Flight of the Conchords) is a nice addition to the cast. But how Martin's character is illustrated tends to be a mess. Does the story make him a love interest, a comedic entry, or last-minute antagonist? If you guessed all three, then you have on of the main problems of the story in a nutshell, in that it tends to try and throw everything at the wall without focusing much on the important stuff.
The second problem appears to be that in the transition from the book to the film, much of the emotional or even romantic connections were lost in the transition and the resulting feature seems to be a thumb in the eye to fans of the book. Austenland the book was a fun, light literary experience which may have even pulled at a heartstring or two. Austenland the movie is much lighter, pulls at no heartstrings and goes for laughs more often than it should, and suffers as a result.
Austenland could have been a nice film, illustrated an obsession with and fascination of a topic that far more people could have connected with. But it lacks in the basic ingredients which would have made it a decent romantic comedy, much less one which could have been a rousing success. The charm of Austenland is better limited to its pages than on cinema and television screens.
Sony tosses Austenland onto Blu-ray shelves in high-definition with a 2.40:1 widescreen presentation using the AVC encode which looks fine. The colors are reproduced nicely though there appears to be a spare moment or two of noise, and exteriors look sharp as well. There is a lack of detail in the foreground and backgrounds which is a minor inconvenience, though the Blu-ray seems to replicate the artistic intent of things well and without complaint.
The soundtrack of this DTS HD-MA 5.1 surround option is solid, albeit if it does not have a lot to do over the course of the film. Dialogue is clean and nicely anchored in the center channel, and the film's myriad of songs (some older, familiar ones from Belinda Carlisle and Billy Ocean, though most from someone named Emmy The Great) help present that the soundstage can be broad if given opportunities to. The rainstorm when Jane is delivered back to the manor by Mr. Nobely is quietly immersive through all channels, and the subwoofer gets a moment or two of engagement through the film as well. It is nice material.
Hess does a commentary for the film with Stephenie Meyer, she of the "Twilight" books and recently The Host, and who is the producer of Austenland. To a degree, they talk about the lengths of adapting Hale's book and on the concept of the camp ("a Jedi one where everyone gets to fight Darth Vader"), and on spotting some trivia in the film fans may not have recognized. They share the obligatory thoughts on the hair and wardrobe of the period, but also on the actors as they appear onscreen. It is a decent track but one is not going to gain a whole lot about the production in general. Next is a Q&A session with the cast (32:45), where they discuss how they got to the story and thoughts on Hess as a director. They also recount their horrible audition stories through their careers, with Seymour's story being if not the best, at least the one that drops the most jaws. The film's trailer (2:05) completes the package.
Austenland fails not only at a romantic comedy level but as something that is to be an appreciation for a well-valued literary figure. The result is a film that lacks clarity and tries many different things, most of them poorly. The Blu-ray looks and sounds good, and leaves a bit to be desired in the bonus material arena. Maybe there is some saving grace in it for Jane Austen fans, but stripping that away it is just a poor film.