Jane Austen's novels were dismissed as womanly trifles in the early 19th century, and it wasn't until the 20th that she finally took her place alongside male writers like Charles Dickens and Henry James. So why, in the 21st century, does it seem like Austen has been returned to the chick-lit shelf?
It probably started back in 1995, when the BBC series "Pride & Prejudice" introduced Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy -- a Brandoesque brooder in breeches -- and American director Amy Heckerling turned Austen's "Emma" into a hit teen comedy, "Clueless." Austen soon became known as popular fiction for the thinking woman (as in 2007's "The Jane Austen Book Club") and eventually for the not-so-thinking woman (as in "Twilight," whose Bella Swan professes to read her).
The new film "Austenland" continues Austen's trivialization. It's the story of Jane Hayes (Keri Russell), a single woman so obsessed with Austen that she books a trip to Austenland, a fictional but not implausible role-playing resort run by the imperious Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour). Jane, corseted and rechristened Ms. Erstwhile, meets the aloof Henry Nobley and cheeky stableboy Martin (J.J. Feild and Bret McKenzie, both likable enough), who begin vying for her affection. They're paid actors on the resort's staff -- but could one of them be feeling something real?
Directed by Jerusha Hess, who co-wrote with Shannon Hale from her novel, "Austenland" understands Austen's enduring romantic appeal but has no use for her deeper themes of class, wealth and gender inequality. The same goes for its shallow heroine. Our Jane loves all the bonnets and plummy accents but thoroughly lacks her favorite novelist's sharp wit and keen insights. What's more, she's surrounded by characters who aren't historical so much as distastefully outdated: a mincing homosexual (James Callis), a sex-starved fat lady (Jennifer Coolidge), a black hunk o' man (Ricky Whittle).
As a modern twist on Austen's work, "Austenland" has potential, but it's squandered. If, however, you just love a man in a waistcoat, here's your movie.
PLOT A lovelorn Jane Austen fan gets to live out her fantasy.
CAST Keri Russell, J.J. Feild, Bret McKenzie
BOTTOM LINE Frilly and useless, with shallow characters and zero regard for Austen's deeper themes.