Sunday, February 12, 2012

Movie – Lost in Austen (2008)

Lost in Austen is a four episode miniseries that imagines what would happen if a modern woman got transported into the world of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.  I would describe it as a comedy/drama with romance in it, as opposed to a romantic comedy.  It is definitely for people who know the P&P story.  Anyone else would probably be lost.  All of the characters you would expect in Pride and Prejudice are there, and they all are played as if it is a drama, but inserting this modern woman into the story gives many opportunities for comedy.  It has proved quite popular with P&P fans, except the purists who are horrified by what happens with some of the characters.

Jemima Rooper plays Amanda Price, a woman living in modern day London.  She is a huge Pride and Prejudice fan.  In addition to reading the book whenever she is down, she also has mementos of the 1995 BBC production and she even has the 1995 score as her ringtone.  Her boyfriend is a jerk and can’t understand why the book is so important to her.  She wishes she could escape into the civility and better times of P&P.  Just then she hears a noise in her bathroom.  She goes in and finds a woman looking confused.  The woman is dressed like someone from 1800 and she claims her name is Elizabeth Bennett.  She came through a door in the attic of her house and found herself in this strange place.

Amanda thinks someone is playing a trick on her.  She gets distracted and suddenly this woman is gone.  Of course, Elizabeth Bennett, played by Gemma Arterton (Quantum of Solace, St. Trinian’s), comes back a second time.  This time Amanda sees the portal Elizabeth came through and mostly to prove to herself that she isn’t going mad, she crawls through it.  She finds herself in a hallway in a house.  Suddenly, the door closes behind her and won’t re-open.  She is trapped on one side and Elizabeth Bennett is trapped in the real world.  (Like the portal in 1999’s Being John Malkovich, you just have to go with the fact that it exists and not worry about how.)

Amanda almost immediately encounters Claude Bennett, the patriarch of the family.  She asks, “Claude?  Seriously?”  He looks a little rueful and says it is a family name.  Mr. Bennett’s first name is never mentioned in the book, so this is the first of many times that Amanda will learn the real story behind the story that is Pride and Prejudice.  Mr. Bennett is played by Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey).

Amanda quickly meets the rest of the Bennetts.  The sisters are excited to have a “friend of Lizzie’s” visiting them.  Amanda tries to adopt the way of speaking that she has read so often in the book.  She also changes out of her modern clothes into dress more appropriate for the period.  When she is going to go to bed that night she gets her second “real story” shock – they don’t have toothpaste and toothbrushes.  They rub twigs with chalk and use that.  She is horrified.

Amanda has kept it together pretty well, all things considered.  In the morning when Lydia Bennett slips into her bed to sleep, she loses it though.  Amanda goes on a funny rant for the hidden cameras she thinks are there from whatever elaborate prank this is.  When she sees that all she has done is succeed in shocking Lydia, she stops.  She later joins the family for breakfast and she finds that new neighbor Mr. Bingley has come to visit.  She is at the start of the Pride and Prejudice story.  Fascinated to see all the P&P characters for real, she accompanies the family to a ball. 

She runs into Mr. Darcy, played by Elliot Cowan (The Golden Compass, Happy-Go-Lucky) and is immediately put off by him.  Reading about his manner in a book is one thing; actually experiencing it is another.  Of course, Elizabeth Bennett’s reaction to Darcy when she first met him was not a positive one either and we all know how that turned out.

Events mostly continue to play out like in the book until it comes time for Elizabeth to visit her sister Jane at the Bingley’s to see how serious her illness is.  Elizabeth isn’t there, so Amanda runs after Jane.  While there she accidentally monopolizes the attention of both Bingley and Darcy.  She can suddenly see a serious smolder from Darcy, but it is Bingley’s attention that really throws her.  He is supposed to fall in love with Jane, but he decides Amanda is the one for him.  This brings the wrath of Mrs. Bennett down on Amanda.  Mrs. Bennett, played by Alex Kingston (E.R), may be mostly comic relief in the book, but in this comedy/drama she actually shows just how much of a mother she can be when it comes to protecting her daughters.  She displays some serious spine and gives Amanda yet another surprise.

Amanda realizes that the story is going all wrong; that her presence has caused this and that she has to be the one to set it right since she knows how it is supposed to go.  She just has to get things back on track, and then keep them there until she and Elizabeth can somehow switch back.  Of course, the more she tries, the more things go off course. 

When Mr. Collins shows up, there is no potential marriage to Mr. Bingley that stands in the way of marrying Jane, so Amanda ends up sacrificing herself and accepting a marriage proposal from Collins instead.  Mrs. Bennett and Jane both think that Amanda is trying to usurp their property by marrying him, but she is just trying to get Jane and Bingley together.  When Darcy convinces Bingley that the Bennetts are not marriage material, and Collins breaks off his engagement to Amanda, Jane and Collins suddenly end up married. 

Of all the versions of P&P I have seen, this one has the least desirable Mr. Collins.  1995’s character had boring conversations about architecture and 2005’s was too short.  Frankly, neither of those things is that horrible.  In Lost in Austen this Mr. Collins is truly not someone you’d ever want to marry.  He looks like a cadaver.  He has a disgusting habit of smelling his fingers after a particular activity.  He’s just all around the worst nightmare for Jane.  At least he has taken a vow of celibacy to purify himself, but that will come to an end at some point.  And guess what?  As the story goes on we find out that Mr. Collins has brothers, each worse than the one before.  Since there are four remaining Bennett sisters, they figure they will come and marry them like their brother did.  Will even Mrs. Bennett be in favor of that?

While this is going on Darcy has also become enamored of Amanda.  She tries to fend off both Bingley and Darcy.  Suddenly, a certain Mr. Wickham also enters the mix.  Even though Amanda knows, or thinks she knows, exactly who Wickham is, she still can’t help but be charmed by him.  She finds out that we didn’t quite get the whole story from Jane Austen of what happened between him and Georgiana Darcy.  And when she has to leave the Bennett’s house after Jane’s marriage, she is saved by, of all people, Wickham.  He helps her out by getting her back on her feet and teaching her how to lie to get ahead in society.  He also gives her good advice about mending fences with Jane.  As she says to him later in the story, “You may be a bastard, but you’re the right bastard at the right time.”  He responds, with a twinkle, “One does one’s best.”  The two continue to lightly flirt when circumstances bring them together.  Maybe Wickham wouldn’t be quite so bad to end up with.

Eventually the story has gotten so out of hand that Amanda starts to wonder if maybe she should just give up – that’s she’s never going to get back to the real world and maybe she should accept this.  Of course, accepting this fate just so happens to include accepting the attentions of Mr. Darcy, so maybe things wouldn’t be so bad.  Early on she fended off Bingley by telling him she “prefers the company of women” – which leads to yet another funny revelation later in the story.  Combined with taking Darcy’s advice and not marrying Jane, and then seeing the woman he loves married to a horrible man, this has sent Bingley into a downward spiral and strained his friendship with Darcy.

I spent some time in the post on the 1995 P&P adaptation discussing the famous “wet he-shirt” scene by Colin Firth.  I mentioned that there was a very funny reference to it in Lost in Austen.  At one point when things are going good between them Amanda asks Darcy if he can do something for her.  Cut immediately to Darcy kneeling neck deep in water then standing up, his transparent shirt clinging to his chest and arms.  Cut to Amanda – “I’m having a bit of a strange post modern moment here.”  Cut to Darcy, shirt still very clingy and see through – “Is that agreeable?”  Cut to Amanda, almost beside herself – “Oh, yes.  Yes.”  This version of the wet he-shirt was a lot more impressive than the 1995 one, in my opinion.

Like the scene above, you have to be familiar with the Pride and Prejudice stories and adaptations to get the humor.  Most of it is based on understanding what is supposed to happen vs. what ends up happening after Amanda’s interference.  It also mines some humor from the “fish out of water” aspect.

Of course, the people most familiar with the story are also the ones that might be most upset by characters’ stories going in directions other than in the book.  “How can they have Jane marrying Mr. Collins?”  “How can this Amanda woman think she can take the place of Elizabeth Bennett?”  Etc.  The quote I used at the top of the parent post probably sums up these people’s feelings – Jane Austen would be spinning in her grave.

The thing is, everything is all in fun.  This is not a parody of Pride and Prejudice.  It is a faithful interpretation of the characters, but with a single event rippling through the story, sending them spinning off in new directions.  They don’t suddenly have Mr. Darcy making crude comments, or Mr. Bennett callously marrying off Jane, for instance.  Characters are true to who they are in the real story. 

My one complaint with Lost in Austen is that a third or more of the scenes are unfortunately shot in shakycam.  Some people aren’t bothered by this, but I find it very annoying.

The four episodes run for a total of 3 hours on the DVD.  Like the 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice I rented this first, then bought it once I saw how much I liked it.  If you are in North America (aka Region 1 for DVDs) you should be aware that the people who released the DVD cut one scene.  Apparently they were too cheap to pay the little bit of nothing it would have cost to buy the Region 1 DVD rights to a song that is used.  Caroline Bingley puts Amanda on the spot by insisting she entertain them by playing the pianoforte and singing.  Amanda skips the playing, but does sing a couple stanzas of Petula Clark’s 1964 song Downtown, which her mother used to sing to her.  It’s a fun scene and it’s a crappy thing they did by cutting it out.  It leads to an awkward edit, too, with people exhorting Amanda to play and then the next second applauding her now that she’s finished.  Bingley and Darcy make reference to her performance, but the jokes embedded in the comments now don’t work since you don’t know what she did.

For anyone who does watch the Region 1 DVD, pause it at exactly 50 minutes, and then play the video below.  It is the scene cut out of the DVD.

FYI – there is a movie version of Lost in Austen in the early stages of production.  Right now it is planned to come out some time in 2013.

If you have not read Pride and Prejudice, nor seen any of the adaptations, you can still watch this, but you will miss a lot of the humor.  For anyone who does know the story, I definitely recommend this.  And for anyone, especially women, who have pictured themselves in the story, I highly recommend this.  It’s a lot of fun.

Chip’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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