Sundance Film Festival 2013 Movie Review: Austenland

Last night, I had my first experience at the Sundance Film Festival.  It is a place where independent filmmakers can get their work exposed to studios and distributors.  The center of it is in Park City, Utah, and it started in 1978, with Robert Redford as a chairperson.  It is a big event and a glitzy one.  The stars come to Utah to see and be seen.

sundance theater outside

I saw a film called Austenland last night at Peery’s Egyptian Theater (on the National Register of Historic Places and built in 1923) in Ogden, Utah.  It is one of the venues where films are being shown.  It is a large, old theater with the charm of Egyptian decor.  Before the show, we were entertained by an older gentleman in a tux playing the organ!  He pounded out tunes from The Phantom of the Opera. He also played the “Air Force Song.”  I found this delightful, because although I am a pianist by training, I too play the organ for my church meetings.  After his performance finished and the movie was ready to begin, the organ, with him still sitting at it, slowly lowered into the floor until he vanished from sight.

sundance organ

The movie was directed by Jerusha Hess, known for working with her husband on Napoleon Dynamite.  She wrote the screenplay for Austenland as well, along with Shannon Hale, the author of the book.  Hale is a successful young adult author who hails from Utah.  She has written The Goose Girl and Princess Academy among others.

austenland

The movie starred Keri Russell, Jennifer Coolidge, James Callis, JJ Feild, Jane Seymour, and Bret McKenzie.  They were fantastic.

The premise of the movie is that a woman named Jane (Keri Russell) has been obsessed with Jane Austen novels since high school, and her idealization of Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice has caused her to fail in love.  No man can live up to this fictional character.  So she decides to spend her life savings on a trip to Austenland, a themed estate near London that promises to give guests an authentic Austen experience.  Jane goes full of hope and notions of romance.

She and the other female guests dress up in period costume and flirt with handsome actors meant to help create the Austen experience.  Along the way, Jane realizes that the fictional game she is playing can become real and heartbreaking.

I laughed through this entire movie.  It is a comedy and the setting, of a fictional, Austen-filled destination juxtaposed with modern women (and men) pretending to be British and refined, equals much hilarity.  At one point, Jane is asked to share her skills on the piano.  All she knows is a silly rendition of Nelly’s “Hot in Herre,” which scandalizes the owner of Austenland, played by  Jane Seymour.  Coolidge’s character says, “That was frigging awesome!”

This bit is taken to another extreme at the end of the film.  Hess used the characters to create a music video of the song.  Again, it juxtaposes the refinement of an older England with modern-day culture.

The movie explores this idea, of new versus old, but it also explores what can happen to a person when they become obsessed with something that is not real.  This is a concern in our culture, where we are bombarded with unreal images of women and men in magazines, where romance novels like Twilight abound and have more older female fans than younger ones, and where we can become obsesses with wanting what just isn’t attainable because of these images.  (Ironically, Stephenie Meyer produced Austenland because of her shock over the way middle-aged women have become obsessed with her character Edward, the vampire in Twilight.)  Although the movie parodies these ideas, it also scrutinizes them.

Jennifer Coolidge is my favorite part of this film.  She is a genius at comedy and just so darn funny.  She is fantastic at portraying an aging older woman who is at Austenland to find a man and is desperately trying to pretend to be British but hasn’t read any Jane Austen and doesn’t know how to speak with a proper accent.  My favorite part of the movie is when she tries to kiss Colonel Andrews (James Callis).  He is an actor, paid to be her companion and he doesn’t want to kiss her, but he must play along.  There is a lot of awkwardness in him pushing his head away from her as she grabs the back of his head.  So funny!  Coolidge’s lines, which were mostly improvisation, are bound to escape into popular culture once this movie is released.

One of my favorite Coolidge lines was: “Don’t use the chamber pots.  The toilets really work here and the maids don’t know what to do if it’s really piled high.”

After the show, Hess and Hale came onstage for questions.  Hess hinted that she might be in negotiations with a studio for distributing the show, for she said she hoped it would be released “tonight.”  She also said that the soundtrack would be available soon.  And it is a fun and wonderful soundtrack.  And Hess is a fun and wonderful director and filmmaker.

sundance hess and hale

After the show, the audience voted.  We all had ballots to hand to an usher as we left.  From what I could tell, most everybody rated it with four stars, which is the highest rating.  Hopefully, it will win some awards and be released to the public soon.  I highly recommend this movie whether you are an Austen fan or not.  It is brilliant comedy, and something I am sure everybody, both men and women, will enjoy.  The two older men sitting near me laughed just as loud and long as the women they were with.  It was a truly enjoyable film and a great first experience for me at the Sundance Film Festival.

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