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Sundance 2013: Can Stephenie Meyer get Twihards to 'Austenland'?

January 18, 2013|By Steven Zeitchik and John Horn
  • "Austenland"
"Austenland" (Sundance Film Festival )

PARK CITY, Utah -- Men have fantasy-baseball getaways and rock-star camp. For women? There's a Jane Austen vacation.

At least so it goes in the fictional Austenland, Jerusha Hess' romantic comedy of the same name about a place where fans of the author can take a holiday in an English manor. There they live out a “Fantasy Island”-style getaway filled with bodices, high tea and men as fine-looking as Mr. Darcy.

Based on Shannon Hale's novel, the film's  main character is Jane Hayes, a down-in-the-dumps thirtysomething (Keri Russell) who memorized the first three chapters of “Pride and Prejudice” at age 13 and isn’t always sure where the playacting stops and true romance begins.

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“I want something real,” Hayes says at one point. She seems to find it when she strikes up a connection with Martin (Bret MacKenzie), a man who works at Austenland but is not part of the re-enactments.

Much of the action centers on the camp and its list of colorful characters, both tourists and the actor employees who populate the resort. Jennifer Coolidge co-stars as the brassy Miss Elizabeth Charming, another Austenland visitor who has never read any Austen but loves the get-ups. And Jane Seymour plays the opportunistic woman who runs the resort, in a movie that both plays off and with the trappings of Austen-mania.

Hess is a co-writer of Sundance phenomeon "Napoleon Dynamite," which husband Jared co-wrote and directed, and that film's playfulness is much on display here.  (Among the campy touches are musical montages featuring swoony throwback pop ditties like Belinda Carlisle's "Heaven is a Place on Earth" and Roxette's "Must Have Been Love," which add to the film’s romantic whimsy.)

"My husband, Jared, doesn't make romcoms so he couldn't help me with the kisses," Hess quipped after the screening.

But the film's best-known credit comes from elsewhere behind the camera. "Austenland" was produced and financed by “Twilight” author Stephanie Meyer, who knows a little something about young women's obsession with romance-minded authors.  After the screening, Meyer told the audience that "it was a really amazing experience to take a book that I loved and make it real."

Can she communicate that to others? With mountains of street cred among young women, Meyer would be one of the best publicity weapons for any potential buyer. And there are many: Attending the screening were buyers from Summit, Roadside, Fox Searchlight, and even Disney. The core audience of any Jane Austen-themed film is older women, but with "Twilight" and romantic fantasy involved, don’t count out the Millennials.

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