Disclaimer: I am not a Janeite. I mean, yes, I did read Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Emma, and Persuasion. And yes, I've also read some of Jane Austen's Juvenilia. And okay, yes: I've seen all sorts of film and television based on her work, including Emma Thompson's 1995 Oscar-winning adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice (including the 1995 BBC mini-series with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, and the 2005 version, adapted by Debra Moggach and starring Keira Knightley), Emma (1996, starring Gwyneth Paltrow) and Amy Heckerling's Clueless (1995, with Alicia Silverstone). And, to be completely candid, yes, it's true: I've been to the Jane Austen Centre in Bath on Gay Street where Austen once lived. But I didn't take the walking tour. So I repeat: I am not a true Janeite. But I love and admire Austen's work, as have so many.
Austenland, written by Jerusha Hess and Shannon Hale, based on Hale's novel and directed by Hess, is set in a Janeite paradise, an Austen-based Regency-era fantasy theme park/resort. As romantic comedy, the fanciful film explores idealized love and its modern consequences; it offers a contemporary spin on the vintage Bennet-Darcy courtship.
Jane Hayes (winningly portrayed by Keri Russell) has erected a shrine to Mr. Darcy in her apartment, complete with a life-sized cut-out of Colin Firth, but she's unable to find true love in daily life. She sinks her life's savings into buying the basic Copper level of participation at Austenland, run by Mrs. Wattlebrook (Jane Seymour). Desperate for change in her love life, Jane goes to England wearing a Regency-style dress and bonnet. At the large estate, she navigates the fun of a faux 19th-century existence filled with activities like needlepoint, shooting, drawing, and the evening salon, while trying to understand her interactions with the flirty stable hand Martin (Bret McKenzie) and the instant friction with Wattlebrook's nephew, Henry Mobley (J.J. Feild).
Austenland celebrates Janeite fantasies and deconstructs them. As part of the package, guests are re-named in the style of Austen characters, and given a wardrobe. Jane's new name is "Miss Erstwhile"; her room is in the servants' wing. Two other female customers at the resort express enthusiasm for romance. "Miss Elizabeth Charming" (Jennifer Coolidge) and "Lady Amelia Heartwright" (Georgia King) can afford the Platinum Level of participation and want specific male attention for their money's worth. "Miss Charming" pines for "Colonel Andrews" (James Callis), and "Lady Heartwright" lusts for "Captain George East" (Ricky Whittle). The film eventually gives a "behind the scenes" look at the theme park performers away from their Regency roles; we see the actors without their costumes, soaking up sun around a pool, using computers, and gossiping about the guests.
The manor estate of Austenland is replete with marble statues of mythological figures, so we are constantly aware of "the presence of the gods" watching while mere mortals play. In one key scene between Jane and Henry, a statue of Apollo with a Snake is displayed prominently in the background. In the film's second half, Mrs. Wattlebrook's original theatrical pageant brings Aphrodite to life; "Miss Charming" stars as the Love Goddess herself with a half-shell painted in the backdrop, recreating the visual of Botticelli's iconic The Birth of Venus. And in a romantic comedy, indeed, the archetype of Aphrodite is important. As the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite reminds us, the goddess has "sweet laughter" and is "a lover of smiles."
From a classical perspective, the popular fable of Cupid and Psyche could be seen as related to the genre of modern romantic comedy: it involves those who are opposites (a god and a mortal -- a difference in status) bound in love via Cupid's errant arrow, and whose ardor is put through a series of misunderstandings, trials and tests, dictated by Aphrodite. Psyche, named for the Greek word for "soul," must prove herself and her love as part of the adventure. In the end, it is Zeus who intervenes and allows them to be together forever. The tale ends happily, as all deities join in the festivities of Cupid and Psyche's wedding and banquet -- a common feasting trope found in final moments of romantic comedies today, such as in Bridesmaids.
As Austen's work endures through generations and iterations, so do her characters. The wealthy, brooding Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice, who, though initially distant and anti-social turns out to be a worthy suitor when all is revealed, still resonates strongly, as does plucky protagonist Elizabeth Bennet, the young woman who wants to wed for true love (see, for example, recent riffs in Helen Fieldings' Bridget Jones's Diary series or The Lizzie Bennet Diaries).
In Austenland, Jane questions the difference between reality and fantasy -- a point raised in dialogue, too. How much fantasy is needed to fall in love? How do we trust what's real? In the end, Jane finds her Darcy. It happens, though, when she is able to let go of her idealization of a partner, as evidenced in the disassembly of her Darcy shrine upon her return home. She learns to accept what's real: the person who walks through her open front door.