In Defense of Austenland (2013)

Imagine you finish watching The Greatest Showman and immediately watch it all again. The sets are beautiful and the movie inspires you to believe in the American Dream again. Looking for someone who shares your joy, you google movie reviews. Up comes the NYT website and some reviewer has written, “I expected a movie about the circus to have clowns, but director Michael Gracey disappoints.” You would be upset and feel the need to set the internet record straight.

Today I write to defend female filmmaker Jerusha Hess and her delightful directorial debut Austenland (2013). I will not link to or quote the nasty NYT review.

Jerusha Hess is the brilliant writer of Napoleon Dynamite (2004). I loved Napoleon Dynamite so much that I used my screen printing assignment in high school art class to create custom shirts with references to the movie. If you don’t get Napoleon Dynamite, you really don’t get it. It is funny, and every visual feature is intentional.

Austenland is also funny. There are slapstick moments that made me laugh. I also enjoyed little details such as the recurring motif of characters holding fake animals. Ironically, one of the only real animals is a newborn horse foal, who ultimately turns out to be part of a lie. The fake things are real and the real things turn out to be fake. This film is meta. It has layers, like Shrek. It is only inside of the theatrical play within the theme park that the leading man expresses his true feelings.

On the surface, this film is a guilty pleasure romantic comedy. It does deliver on fantasy wish fulfillment, which I think it should. Impressively, it delivers on wish fulfillment while simultaneously delivering interesting commentary on fantasy versus reality.

The main character, Jane Hayes, a fan of Jane Austen novels, has an unhealthy obsession with Mr. Darcy. I’m not personally a Darcy devotee, but I could identify with Jane Hayes. Jane, as she is portrayed by Jerusha Hess and actress Keri Russell, is an idealist. Austens novels have given her something to want which she perceives to be better than post-modern American life.

The movie is a romantic comedy. There is lots of romance, as promised, but Jane is not merely boy-crazy. Jane has a character arc. She ultimately realizes that she has the inner strength to live outside of a fake world.

There is a resolution to the romance in the movie. Regardless of whether you find that resolution to be realistic, Jane has gone on an empowering journey with the help of a genuine female best friend. One of my favorite scenes is early on when Jane’s best friend tries to talk her out of going to Austenland as a travel agent tries to talk her into it.

Some of the reviewers that I found online complained that the film mocks British people. I thought that it was the Americans, not the Brits, who were being mocked. Comedies mock people. If this movie offends you then I really don’t know what to say. Does this film belittle Jane Austen fans? I can imagine that if someone takes Mr. Darcy very very seriously, then they might feel personally attacked, if they can’t get in on the jokes. Jane is having trouble moving on with her real life because, at the age of 30, her bedroom has a giant “Darcy Was Here” sign. At the end she decides to get rid of that, as she should. However, she also enjoys what she perceives to be a superior culture within “Jane Austen’s world”. The movie does not belittle the ideals of sincerity and beauty. No one needs to be embarrassed about desiring high-minded ideals and pretty aesthetics.

As it relates to economics, I observed which parts of Regency-era Austen life were actually enjoyed by modern tourists. Some things like chamber pots were eschewed because modern methods are vastly superior. Other things like afternoons spent on needlepoint projects were not so much painful as boring to the heroine. Boring. Matt Ridley tells us in The Rational Optimist that life in pre-modern England was more miserable than we imagine in terms of health outcomes. An underrated feature of modernity is how much more interesting the world is now that we can read widely and travel and tweet. If you were rich enough to escape endless manual labor in 1810, your options for leisure time were still very limited.

Disclaimer: I have not read the book version of Austenland. My knowledge of Mr. Darcy trivia is surface-level and second-hand. From what research I have done, Jerusha Hess used the source material to make a story that is all her own and should be enjoyed as such.

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