It’s a wonder Kendra never got around to even a mini-review of 2013’s Austenland, since she’s the devoted Jane-ophile of the bunch here at Frock Flicks HQ. Sure, I’ve read all the books, being the English lit geek, but the on-screen versions generally don’t float my boat unless Colin Firth or Emma Thompson are involved. And technically, this flick isn’t an Austen adaption, it’s a modern story of an Austen-obsessed women vacationing at Jane Austen interactive theme park experience of sorts. It’s also HI-LAR-IOUS, maybe even if you haven’t read Austen, but definitely if you have. The Regency-era costumes are also quite good, and there’s a cute rom-com plot for thems that like that sort of thing (JJ Field is adorable as the Darcy-like character, Mr. Henry Nobley).
While this is a contemporary movie and the characters are just “dressing up” in historical costumes to pretend they’re in Jane Austen’s time, the costumes are surprisingly accurate. Designer Annie Hardinge had worked on Blackadder II and III before this film, plus tons of non-historical British TV and movies. In a detailed Q&A with Time magazine, she discusses her work on this film:
“Jerusha Hess, the director, wanted to create a quirky look for Austenland and give the film a “heightened reality.” As the novel’s storyline is a modern take on the Regency style, we decided to use lots of color and to mix modern fabrics with period costume shapes, but to accentuate the look to create a parallel universe.”
The first hint of this heightened reality comes at the airport, where Jane (played by Keri Russell) wears her adorably terrible homemade costume.
This shows how incredibly over-eager her character is to get into the story and experience the romance of ye olden days. She’s contrasted with both the modern tourists around her and the other guest she meets, Elizabeth (a riotously funny Jennifer Coolidge), who is an over-the-top modern girl in busty pink frills.
What I found most clever was the analogy of modern travel classes to Regency social classes. Jane spends her life savings on this trip to Austenland, yet it only gets her the economy-class version, called the “Copper Level.” Elizabeth has booked the first-class vacation, at the “Platinum Level.” Everything about their experience is separated by these classes.
Elizabeth gets fancy pink gowns and big bonnets to wear, while Jane is given a plain brown gown.
Costume designer Annie Hardinge said: “All the women in Austenland wore corsets of the period so that they walked in the proper way for the era.” In Glamour, Keri Russell admitted that she was pregnant during the movie shoot, so while she did wear corsets:
“They made these special ones for me. I assume they would have something similar back in the day, but for me they made these ones with spandex on the sides. I would just get bigger every day, and they’d lace me up looser. I had boobs for the first time in my life, and the Empire waist starts high up, so it’s all sort-of hidden.”
In Time, Hardinge described how the Jane and Elizabeth’s style was distinctly different:
I kept Jane’s wardrobe as authentic and drab as possible with neutral colors and kept the patterns, trim and detailing on her clothes very subdued. As a contrast, Lizzie’s clothes reflected her big personality and her love of the color pink! All of her costumes were designed and made especially for Jennifer Coolidge with lots of embroidery, beadwork and opulent fabrics. The shapes of Lizzie’s dresses were authentic but slightly exaggerated, and I heightened her look by making each dress an homage to the color pink and by making each outfit as detailed as possible, especially emphasizing her extravagant hats and accessories.”
To continue emphasizing the class differences, Elizabeth rides in the coach, but Jane has to ride literally on the back of the coach.
While Elizabeth has a palatial room, Jane is in the servants’ wing.
The parallels are deftly woven throughout the movie, and it’s a reminder that, for as much as we think the 21st century is above old-fashioned notions of rigid class boundaries, hah, not true. Money is still everything, even if it’s not inherited.
In the world of Austenland, money can buy everything, or at least the impression of everything. And impressions are everything at Austenland. Proprietor Mrs. Wattlesbrook (snootily played to perfection by Jane Seymour) projects a impression of ye olde fabulousness and pinkies-out decorum, straight away from the promotional video that Jane watches.
According to Shannon Hale, author of the novel the movie is based on, many people contributed to the styling of that room. In a Q&A with the Utah Desert News, she said:
“The design of the whole office is so funny. You can’t tell, but there’s so much detail in every set. In that room, Jane Seymour actually brought some Jane Seymour dolls that had been made who knows when, maybe during Dr. Quinn, and the art department refitted them into little bonnets and regency dresses.”
The film’s director Jerusha Hess told the Tribeca Film Festival Call Sheet:
“I holed up with my production department in a room for several weeks, and we tried to slip as many jokes in as possible that I didn’t have to get pre-approved. I could hide in the background, under all the layers of costumes and props. My production designer was this guy named James Merifield, and he’s brilliant. He’s done many, many historical period pieces in England, so he knew the genre from head to toe, and he was so excited to just barf on it. I said to him, “Let’s see what Austen barf looks like.” And that’s what we created.”
Considering I live surrounded by gothic Brontë barf myself, I enjoyed those touches!
Mrs. Wattlesbrook takes herself seriously, but the movie doesn’t. That’s the point — it’s a send-up of Jane Austen fandom and rom-coms and maybe a sly dig at folks who take those too seriously. I tend to agree with Keri Russell who said in Vulture:
“The idea of a place like Austenland, I think it’s so delicious and so embarrassing and so good. I’m positive people would pay to go to a place like this. Positive! Come on. You’d go with your girlfriends and you’d all drink lots of wine at lunch and get all dolled up, and maybe get massages, too, if they could add that into the mix. Right? Just a spa element, tucked away over there. And all the girls, you get dressed up and literary-figure-type people are there. It would be amazing. This would be for the lazy people who aren’t going to make their own costumes!”
Yeah, I’d book a ticket, maybe at one of the levels between Copper and Platinum. Clearly, the other guest, Lady Amelia, is booked at one of the higher levels because, like Elizabeth, she has a seemingly endless stream of fancy gowns, although her’s are less OTT.
The daytime activities continue to highlight the class differences in dress and how the ladies are paired off with the actor-gentlemen.
Jennifer Coolidge clearly had a blast playing Miss Elizabeth Charming. She told the Los Angeles Times:
“My parents were so weird about what we could watch on TV. The only stuff we could watch was ‘Masterpiece Theatre: ‘Tom Brown’s School Days,’ ‘Upstairs, Downstairs.’ I would imitate scenes from ‘Upstairs, Downstairs.’ I was obsessed with those English accents. I don’t know if I did that good of a job doing them. That’s probably why I got this role! But it was a fantasy to be on one of those big estates and live in those costumes.”
In Time, Annie Hardinge said:
“Jane’s clothes and those of the servants were very simple shapes and soft colors with minimal detailing, and the fabrics were cottons and muslins. The other characters’ clothes were more over-the-top and had lots of embroidery, color, and accessories; their clothes were made of silks, velvets, and brocades.”
Jane does get a few more dresses, they’re just in those simple, basic styles that costume designer Hardinge noted. Such as the yellow gown she wears to the card party compared with the other ladies finer garb.
On ClotureClub, JJ Field said of playing Mr. Nobley:
“Shannon Hale, the writer of the book (and the co-writer of the script) and Jerusha Hess (the director) approached me partly because I had done Jane Austen before; I was in Northanger Abbey. They had me in mind when they were writing this. So they just wanted to know if I was willing to make fun of myself (which I was delighted to).”
Hilariously, we get to see behind the scenes where the “gentlemen” are shown as actors taking a break from this gig. Austenland is just another show, after all.
But for all the fakery, there’s a fairy-tale too, and Jane goes from plain to princess with a Cinderella transformation. Costume designer Annie Hardinge said of this scene in Time magazine:
“I wanted Jane to look as authentic and beautiful as possible so that all the men would fall in love with her — a lovely Jane Austen heroine. Her dress was beautifully cut in cream silk, embroidered with gold and silver beadwork with matching accessories. It was ornate and elegant, as different as possible from her previous outfits.”
Not sure what she meant by “cream silk” because it looks mint green to me — wonder if there was a last-minute switch? The makeover gown and scene does make Jane look very different than she has previously in the movie, so at least the effect is achieved.
Post-makeover, Jane kind of gets upgraded in her Austenland activities and love-life outlook. Previously, she’d been hooking up with the groundskeeper Martin and treating the Darcy-stand-in, Mr. Nobley, with derision, a la Elizabeth Bennet did the actual Darcy. The made-over Jane flirts with Mr. Nobley but still debates Martin who she thinks is more “authentic.” Hijinks ensue.
Jane’s romantic triangle comes to a head at the week’s final ball, of course. And while she thinks she’s made her own “fuck everything!” choice, it was all part of Austenland’s scripted story.
Jane does end up with
Darcy Mr. Nobley Henry in the end (he’s just a nice history teacher guy!). Elizabeth hooks up with the actor who played the Colonel, and she buys Austenland to make it even more theme-park-y and wacky!
Would you book a ticket to Austenland?