Let's just get this out of the way: Yes, Austenland is a fun movie. It's joyful, exuberant, and features good performances and snappy dialogue and pretty costumes. It's exactly the sort of thing to watch when you want to feel better about your life. Preferably while eating your favorite ice cream straight out of the carton. And it probably enhances the experience if you've recently ended a relationship, are in the midst of ending a relationship, or are thinking about ending a relationship. If you're currently in a happy relationship, you'll still find it entertaining, but really it's not meant for you.
Because here's the thing — the enjoyment of most things related to Austen requires the reader/viewer to be in a state of heartache. Preferably long-term, persistent heartache teetering on the brink of being positively unbearable.
This is why Austen is so popular with women and gay men. We're adept at heartache.
Austen fans are experts on pining. And what the vast majority of us pine for is Mr. Darcy. Even when we don't want to. Believe me, when I sat down to watch Austenland, I was determined not to fall for this Darcy. I'd already been through that with Colin Firth and Matthew Macfadyen, and had hardened my heart.
If you aren't familiar with the premise of Austenland, which is based on the novel of the same name by Shannon Hale, it's very simple. Austen fanatic Jane Hayes, a world champion piner, tires of waiting for her own Mr. Darcy and spends her life savings on a trip to Austenland, a theme park of sorts where participants spend a week living in an Austen-inspired world.
Among other experiences (Whist lessons! Shooting stuffed pheasants!) each guest is promised a make-believe romance with one of the actors playing a typical Austen character, which include a rugged but ultimately fickle stable hand, a dashing but insipid sea captain, a charming but probably gay military man, and of course, Mr. Darcy.
I was relieved to discover that the Darcy of Austenland (actually his name is Henry Nobley, and he's played by actor JJ Feild) was completely not my type. Tall. Blonde. Blue-eyed. Smooth-skinned. Not really what I go for. Which was a relief. Believe me, falling in love with fictional characters is no fun. I wasted a good three or four years in my 20s waiting around for Peter Lake from Mark Helprin's novel Winter's Tale to call. So this was good news.
Immune from Darcy/Nobley's charms, I was happy to watch Austenland from a critical distance. I played the "Where Have I Seen That Actor Before?" game. Is that the girl from Felicity? Remember the tragedy when they cut her hair? Look! There's the weaselly doctor from Battlestar Galactica! And isn't that one of the dudes from Flight of the Conchords?
I wrote down the best lines uttered by the always fantastic Jennifer Coolidge, playing another Austenland guest: "I'm gonna look great in those wench gowns." "I think being creative is a waste of time and money."
I tried not to be jealous of Shannon Hale getting her book turned into a movie after meeting director Jerusha Hess (who wrote one of my favorite movies, Napoleon Dynamite) and handing her a copy of her novel. I tried not to wonder why producer Stephenie Meyer (yes, of Twilight fame) picked Austenland to get all excited about rather than, say, my incredibly funny trio of novels about Jane Austen living as a modern-day vampire.
Things were going along nicely. And then it happened.
What I'm most annoyed by, I think, is that I didn't even see it coming. I'd watched the predictable interplay between Keri Russell's Jane and JJ Feild's Henry. I'd appreciated the way the script (and I'm assuming the novel, which I haven't read) played out exactly like the plot of an Austen novel. It was all very clever and sweet, with the requisite misunderstandings and misplaced affections, and I didn't care one whit that I knew exactly how it was all going to end because there's only one way anything Austenesque CAN end.
Then we came to the scene where Jane and Henry's feelings for one another become clear. It happens in a garden, of course. Jane says something to Henry about how they should try not to annoy one another, and Henry responds with, "You don't annoy me. You make me nervous."
And just like that, I was in love with him. I wish I could blame Shannon Hale, or Jerusha Hess, or even Stephenie Meyer. But it's not their fault, nor their genius. It's Austen's. She created Darcy, and he's been teasing us ever since. And it apparently doesn't matter what he looks like, or that in real life he's already married to Neve Campbell. There's something about that brooding, conflicted man that gets under your skin, and when you find out that you make him nervous, well, it's all over.
Herein lies the cruelty of Austen, the thing for which she ought not be forgiven. The Unspeakable Problem of Mr. Darcy, the truth that we aren't supposed to acknowledge, is that he doesn't exist outside the pages of a book (or on the screen). Austen never found him in real life, and neither will any of us.
Jane Hale in Austenland realizes this and quits the place, returning home and stripping her apartment of all the Austen-related paraphernalia with which she's decorated it. But even as we watch her pack up the doll house and tea sets and life-size cutout of Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy, we know what's going to happen.
When Henry Nobley appears in her doorway, professing his love and asking her to give him a chance, it's all over, both for Jane and for us. In that moment, we believe once again that he IS out there somewhere, and that if we just believe hard enough, we can find him.
Michael Thomas Ford is the author of Jane Vows Vengeance: A Novel (Jane Austen, Vampire Series) and more than 50 other books.