Although a few hearty laughs abound in Jerusha Hess's 'Austenland,' the story of lonely-hearts, Pride and Prejudice-obsessed Jane Hayes ultimately coasts on its eccentric premise and a good deal of heart-warming charm. The co-writer of small comedic favorites 'Napoleon Dynamite' and 'Nacho Libre' makes her solo debut in this film adaptation of Shannon Hale's bestselling novel, supplying the production with just enough wit and humor to keep it amusing. Several pratfalls and goofball moments, many involving the unconventionally funny Jennifer Coolidge, largely feel out of place and desperate, but the low-budget rom-com survives on the glowing performances of Keri Russell, JJ Feild and the New Zealand comedian and musician Bret McKenzie.
Of course, it doesn't hurt to also be a fan of British novelist Jane Austen when entering this modern romantic-fantasy fiction of 19th Century etiquette and social mores. At least some familiarity with the author's works, especially what is arguably her best-known, still-popular novel and perhaps the 1995 BBC version of that book, may be in order. Playing it cutesy and a bit naïve yet delightful and appealing, Russell's Jane is a thirty-something single fixated on the make-believe romances of Austen's stories, which put a serious damper on her real-life relationships. Her small, one-bedroom apartment is decorated like a countryside cottage while a life-size poster of Colin Firth stands by the door. For an Austen fanatic as Jane supposedly is, however, it's rather odd her knowledge and passion for the author only extends to Pride and Prejudice.
Even so, such is the plot's central conceit: Jane's passion is for a gentleman like Firth's Mr. Darcy, a childhood obsession that's grown into an unhealthy hang-up and addiction. When she learns of an Austen-themed resort where guests can live like a character in the book for a week, she blows her entire savings and travels to England in hopes of finally turning her fantasy into a reality. Again, it makes for an intriguing plot with several possibilities to celebrate Austen's famed wit and ironic commentary on high society, but Hess, who also wrote the script and working with producer Stephenie Meyer, eschews the opportunity in favor of typical rom-com clichés. Except for one rather clever moment of dinner banter between the two leads, much of the story resorts to physical gags and trivial silliness for making audiences laugh.
Yet in spite of those minor failings, the film manages to surprise and entertain with a colorful assemble cast. There's something wryly comical about seeing Jane Seymour as owner and manager Mrs. Wattlesbrook, a woman so driven by keeping up appearances, she's practically in character 24 hours a day and makes Jane's stay at the resort somewhat difficult. Feild is the proprietor's bitter, heart-broken nephew Mr. Henry Nobley, and McKenzie plays stable-hand, groundskeeper Martin. With the two tug-of-warring over Jane's affections — Feild doing his own rendering of Mr. Darcy; McKenzie, a broad-stroked likeable love interest — the story gradually, and rather nicely, develops into a real-life version of the novel. Coolidge and Georgia King are the comic relief and guests that befriend Jane while James Callis and Ricky Whittle round out the laughter.
Cliché-ridden as it may be, however, 'Austenland' steers around predictable trappings to a surprising effect, managing to actually throw an unexpected twist into the mix towards the end. In fact, a few genre tropes are used for satirical jabs which bring smiles, with the highlight being the obligatory finale in the airport as a crowd gathers and gawks. While there might not be anything particularly notable about Jerusha Hess's direction, she nonetheless keeps the narrative lighthearted with a good-natured feel, even as things progress to near melodramatic drivel. In the end, 'Austenland' makes for an easy diversion on Valentine's Day, a charming enough, rib-tickling getaway.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment brings 'Austenland' to Blu-ray on a Region Free, BD50 disc inside a blue, eco-elite keepcase. After several skippable trailers, viewers are taken to a static menu screen with the image of the cover art and music playing in the background.
'Austenland' debuts on Blu-ray with a generally pleasing and admirable 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode that also falls a bit short. For the most part, the freshly-minted transfer is in fine shape and nary a major artifact worth noting. Only, the overall picture is somewhat drab and on the pale side. The color palette isn't particularly bright and rather lackluster, which for a modern comedy is weirdly disappointing; however, primaries are clean and accurately rendered. Contrast and brightness levels are also fairly dull, making much of the image appear flat and plain with weak blacks that often look pretty murky and grayish. Fine object detailing is quite sharp, as background information is well-defined and distinct, but by and large, the video is much softer than would be expected from a new release. Even if the photography were intentional to imitate a BBC production of an Austen novel, it remains an average presentation.
By contrast, the low-budget rom-com arrives with a slightly better and more engaging DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. Of course, much of the attention and focus is contained in the front soundstage, but it's a broad and welcoming presentation with strong channel separation and pleasing off-screen effects. Dialogue is very well-prioritized and intelligible throughout, allowing for even the most intimate, whispered conversations to be heard cleanly. Several atmospherics spread into the rears, creating an often satisfying and somewhat enveloping soundfield, but it's not always consistent. Dynamic range is also not very extensive, but it's clean and detailed while low-frequency effects add a nice, palpable feel to the music and various song selections. Overall, the lossless mix is a pleasing listen and better than expected for its genre.
From director Jerusha Hess and producer Stephenie Meyer, 'Austenland' is a low-budget romantic comedy with a potentially intriguing premise, yet it falls into the usual cliché trappings and features a few out-of-place physical gags. Nonetheless, strong performances from the main cast, especially a delightful Keri Russell, make the film an easy, enjoyable enough diversion this Valentine's Day. The Blu-ray sadly arrives with a mediocre and average picture quality but a better audio presentation. Supplements are very light and middling, but fans of the movie will be satisfied with the purchase while the curious will want to rent first.