Making the Grades
Jane Hayes (Keri Russell) is what you might call a Jane Austen fanatic. She has read all six of her books, memorized large passages from many of them, and watched various film adaptations of the novels too often to count. All the while, she can’t help but compare the modern world with that of the author’s day. Why, she wonders, wasn’t she born at a time of gentleman suitors, proper ladies, and drawing room tea parties?
So it is no surprise when the over-thirty-and-still-single woman has her attention caught by a themed vacation in the English countryside, bidding visitors to step back into the Regency Era and play out their favorite Austen stories. Throwing all sense and sensibility aside, Jane pays the exorbitant fee and embarks on the adventure of a lifetime.
Sadly, not all turns out as advertized. Upon her arrival the facility’s manageress Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour) dubs her Miss Ernstwhile, and informs Jane that her “bronze package” only entitles her to a room in the basement, some drab dresses and the role of an indebted orphan. Meanwhile the “platinum” guests get beautiful finery, grand apartments and names like Miss Elizabeth Charming (Jennifer Coolidge) and Lady Amelia Heartwright (Georgia King).
Holding onto her pride, despite the prejudice, Jane determines to make the best of the situation—even when the men of the manor prove a little disappointing as well. All actors hired as part of the guest’s experience, Henry Nobley (JJ Field) is stuffy, Colonel Andrews (James Callis) is smarmy, and the exotic Captain East (Ricky Whittle) keeps looking for opportunities to remove his shirt and reveal his ripped chest. Fortunately Martin (Bret McKenzie), who is only paid as a grounds keeper, appears a safe place to turn for a measure of reality and maybe even a little romance.
Viewers of this film should be aware that you have to be a big enough Jane Austen fan to get the humor. But you should not be such a purist that you can’t laugh at the script’s spoofing of the author’s earnest description of early 1800s social norms. You also need to be willing to accept some crude 21-century innuendo that is played for comedy when it is contrasted with the propriety of a bygone age. While shedding some of those constraining, old-fashioned conventions may seem liberating (I’m glad I no longer need to pass my spare time doing needle point), the crassness of today’s dating (depicted here with lustful flirtations, uninvited displays of affections and unfaithful intentions of married people) may leave some longing for the good old days of well-mannered courtship.
Although Austenland may not prove to be everyone’s cup of tea, the script does present at least one universal truth: As nice as it may be to daydream, when it comes to love and companionship, nothing beats the real thing. For Jane, this means taking a more critical look at her fantasies. For comedy-romance junkies (the obvious target audience of this movie) it might mean coming to a greater appreciation of what our own world has to offer. Undoubtedly those who can take their Austen brewed with a good dose of wry wit, won’t need much persuasion to drink up this unique blend of Jane’s classic works.
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about Austenland.
What is it about the past (as described by Jane Austen) that makes Jane Hayes want to return to the Regency Era? What periods of history would you want to visit, if you had the chance? Does the experience live up to all Jane hoped for? How do you think you would feel if you could actually live in the time of your choice?
Why is fantasy often more appealing than reality? What things did Jane learn about pretending that made her want the real world back?