“Austenland” is much better than the critics are saying

It is a truth universally acknowledged — or nearly so — that “Austenland,” the film-child of writer Shannon Hale, director Jerusha Hess, and producer Stephenie Meyer, is a dud. Male reviewers in particular have not been kind. I’d like to file a minority report. True, the off-beat wackiness, which probably reflects the sensibility of director Jerusha Hess, is an odd match with the romantic plot, which itself is a bit hackneyed; and the slapstick gags go flat by film’s end. But I was happy enough to laugh along with the audience at the good-natured fun.

The real interest of the film, though, is neither the romance nor the comedy. It’s in the film’s sophisticated thematic development, which I assume draws on the strength of the Hale’s novel of the same name, on which the film is based. Behind the film’s slapstick surface lies an intelligent satirical edge: its critical observations are not original, but they are relevant and smartly realized. One imagines David Foster Wallace and Jean Baudrillard at home on Shannon Hale’s bookshelf: the film’s story, which centers around the protagonist’s holiday at a Jane Austen theme park, satirizes the entertainment creep and escapism that deform advertising, art, politics, and media.

The protagonist, Jane, longs to escape the daily grind for a romantic greenworld, like a Shakespearean heroine in the forest. She finds, however, that because she has allowed her inner life to be colonized by a kitschy, commodified fantasy — as if her mind vomited all over her bedroom, the space is festooned with degraded, commercialized Austeniana, notably a full-size cardboard cutout of Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy —  there can be no escape. No escape, that is, until the inner vessel is cleansed of decorative Regency ringlets.The film thus wryly comments on “bachelorette syndrome”: the unwholesome combination of fantasy, spectacle and consumer desire that shapes female subjectivity in the age of reality television.

Likewise, the film toys with the problem of authenticity and simulacrum, another live cultural problem in our era of digitally altered images and virtual identities. The film illustrates the conundrum in Hess’s signature off-beat style, by decorating the set — which is, crucially, not only the actual film’s set but also the “set” for the Austen theme park — with taxidermy fowl. We first see a stuffed rooster set casually in the background when — spoiler alert! — we are introduced to the handsome devil who vies for Jane’s affection (or does he, really?). As the story proceeds, the fake-but-sorta-real-looking birds proliferate onscreen, until the final scenes when great piles of the taxidermy fowl are carted around in a wheelbarrow. The point is memorable, if not subtle: in this Potemkin village, Jane’s task is to distinguish the real rooster from the simulacrum.

From this perspective, “Austenland” really is heir to Jane Austen’s novels, despite the vast difference in sensibility. For Austen, too, the problem of distinguishing artifice from authenticity is central to the romantic plot. Austen’s great subject is manners, and her gimlet eye refuses to look away from the ways in which social manners deceive and deform human relations. There is a crucial difference between Austen and “Austenland”, though: in Austen’s world, manners are primarily a means for reproducing inherited categories of status and class, and the stakes are deadly high. “Austenland,” true to its 21st century context, sees social manners primarily as a way to reverse-reveal personality. Among the characters at Austenland, those who most artfully perform in the pageant of manners prove to be the least sincere; conversely, the character who performs most awkwardly, the American Miss Charming, turns out to be the most authentic.

“Austenland” might, then, be nothing more than another instance of our anxious obsession with individuality, personal authenticity, and self-realization. Jane comes to believe that, because she bought the cheapest ticket, her “immersive experience” at the theme park is engineered to end in disappointment. She vows to take control of her own story and determine her own destiny. This trope is probably the most familiar in American cinema, and I was disappointed, when I saw it, that the film was lapsing into cliche.

But what happens next is interesting: rather than cast off the manners, roles and expectations of the artificial world in which she is living, Jane decides to inhabit them more fully. She begins participating in the drawing room rituals and making genteel conversation, all in pursuit of her own goal. She realizes that the social forms she has experienced as stifling and inauthentic can also be vehicles to form relationships with the other people in the room — all of whom, after all, are the protagonists of their own stories. Indeed, one reading of the film’s final scene is that there is, ultimately, no pristine personal authenticity: we are all, always and already, acting in somebody else’s story.

This notion, that one can achieve satisfying relationships by inhabiting inherited roles and forms, is so foreign to our American gospel of individual self-invention as to be illegible to most reviewers. One of the most common criticisms of the film is that Jane has “no personality,” she’s a cipher or a bore — because she chooses to inhabit her role rather than to cast it off and start from scratch on her own. I think these criticisms miss the important critique the film makes of naive notions of self-invention and autonomy. Social and even intimate roles only become problematic, the film suggests, when they are co-opted by corporate interests and re-structured as clients or customers.

This may be where the film makers’ shared Mormon faith informs the film. Mormonism includes a strong streak of individualism, but it also asks its adherents, both in ritual worship and in everyday life, to perform collective roles not of their own choosing. Sometimes we get the balance between individualism and collectivism wrong, and we need to re-calibrate. But the rich Latter-day Saint legacy of cooperative endeavor surely suggests that we’re getting something right.

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