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April 18, 2009
Review - " Lost in Austen  "  - (on DVD) By Roland Hansen
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Lost in Austen movie poster
Lost in Austen - Bennet girls, George Wickham & Amanda Price (Jemima Rooper)
Elliot Cowan and Jemima Rooper - Lost in Austen
Lost in Austen
Directed by: Dan Zeff
Starring: Jemima Rooper, Gemma Arterton, Elliot Cowan, Hugh
Bonneville, Tom Mison, Tom Riley

"It is a truth universally acknowledged," that every once in awhile
you "must be in want" of some Jane Austen:

Screenwriter Guy Andrews and director Dan Zeff play off of the
insatiable and overwhelmingly female appetite for all things Jane
Austen. And it's precisely because of Pride’s built-in popularity
that made the decision to throw time travel into the mix all the
more daring as we’ve already been treated to countless modern
interpretations of Pride and Prejudice that include: the
granddaddy of them all - BBC's sublime Colin Firth and Jennifer
Ehle ‘90s filmed miniseries where Firth’s pitch perfect take on
the unforgettable Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy which inspired Helen
Fielding's "Bridget Jones’ Diary" (as she based her version of
Darcy on Firth himself), Nora Ephron’s Shop Around the Corner
twist applied to Pride in "You’ve Got Mail", Gurinder Chadha’s
visual feast "Bride and Prejudice", and Joe Wright’s classically
Delta Award winning work starring Keira Knightley. Most
certainly easily one of the most enjoyable (especially for
enthusiasts of the Colin Firth version), is this delicious made for
British television piece, "Lost in Austen", a three hour mini-epic
that takes Austen's characters and plot and turns it inside out, a
la Pleasantville, when one of the book's ardent admirers, one
Amanda Price (Jemima Rooper), finds herself ensconced in the
long ago world of British class and sex-role stereotypes. It's an
amazingly clever premise that scenarist Guy Andrews plays with
magnificently, managing to give the work, in Amanda's own wide-
eyed words, a "post-modern moment" while continually upending the audience's expectations of what's about to happen.

One must admit however that Jane Austen purists may be a bit disheartened by this modern interpretation that carries
Amanda Price’s contemporary, uncouth, and sarcastic sensibilities back in time while she ultimately fills in for Elizabeth who
has taken up residence in Amanda’s present day apartment. And in doing so, Amanda has just barely convinced Mr. and
Mrs. Bennet that the two “good friends” have swapped places temporarily and due to this warped displacement of centuries,
screenwriter Guy Andrews has a great deal of fun in showing the way that injecting someone who “knows the ending” into the
narrative of Pride and Prejudice can greatly impact and alter the course of the novel.

Amanda is an unhappy modern lass living in Hammersmith and putting up with her boorish boyfriend Michael. She regularly
loses herself in Austen's tome and is amazed one night to find Austen's heroine Lizzie Bennet playing with the electric light
switch in her bathroom. Bennet reveals that a faux door behind the bathtub actually leads to the third floor of the Bennet
manse circa the early 1800s. Not quite believing it, Amanda steps through, only to have the door shut unceremoniously
behind her, evidently leaving Lizzie to fend off the 21st century by her own devices. Amanda is quickly swept up in the hustle
and bustle of the Bennet household, telling Lizzie's parents that their daughter and she have traded places for a while.

Much like the unintentional impact Reese Witherspoon and Toby Maguire have on the citizens of the Leave it to Beaver like
show Pleasantville in Gary Ross’s brilliant film, Amanda is only in Longbourn for a few moments before she inadvertently sets
into action events, twists, and misunderstandings that change the entire arc of the book she read so often that it was nearly
a substitute for an unexciting boyfriend, dull day job, and nonexistent social life. Things quickly become totally bolloxed and
the more Amanda tries to put things right the more they go awry. It's just one cock-up after another
What quickly ensues is a sort of fun house mirror version of Pride and Prejudice, where Amanda's presence works something
like the Heisenberg Principle, and those being watched begin to act differently. This is such a delightful reimagining of
Austen's work that I don't want to spoil any of the wonderful surprises in store for longtime fans of the novel, or indeed any of
its adaptations (especially the Firth version, which is referenced explicitly throughout). I will say that a number of unexpected
liaisons ensue, as Amanda, ever the 21st century freethinking woman, cuts a fairly wide swath through the mannered men of
Austen's England. There are a number of beautiful meta-moments throughout, where supposedly wicked characters like
Wickham are shown to be something quite different, and other, more bland if mildly despicable characters like Collins, turn
out to be deplorable in this version. Suffice it to say that Bingley and Jane do not exactly gallop into matrimony, and Darcy's
character turns out to be more off-putting than it is in even the "usual" versions.

In a film full of virtually flawless supporting turns, special mention has to be made of Hugh Bonneville's exceptionally funny
Mr. Bennet, Alex Kingston's hysterical (literally and figuratively) Mrs. Bennet, and especially Christina Cole as the calculating
Caroline Bingley and Tom Riley as Mr. Wickham, a character quite different from what longtime fans of Pride and Prejudice
are going to expect. Production values are quite high in this piece, with Austen's world recreated magnificently and shot
extremely well by director Dan Zeff and DP David Higgs. In fact, despite its conceit (or perhaps because of it, since it gives us
a modern perspective through which to view it), "Lost in Austen" is one of the most palpably real recreations of this era, and
certainly one of the most emotionally true renditions of Austen's work, albeit with a number of incredible changes.

Any fan of Pride and Prejudice is going to have a ball (at Netherfield or elsewhere) with this extremely winning take on the
subject matter. My advice is to watch the BBC version again, especially if you haven't recently, and then dive into Lost in
Austen as a sort of palate-cleansing dessert. It's luscious and bittersweet in equal measure and will leave you feeling
wonderfully refreshed.

While at its core "Lost in Austen" stays quite within the confines of the book, it still takes enormous liberties in swapping
out plots and characters, sometimes to fascinating effect as Charlotte Lucas becomes a bit more unlikable than you’d
assume and we discover that there may be a second side to Wickham’s storyline that we’d never heard, along with one major
surprise about Caroline Bingley (of which Amanda Price exclaims "I bet Jane Austen never imagined that!"). We soon learn
Mr Bennets christian name, something never mentioned in the novel. We also get a bit of backstory as Mr Bennet tells of
teaching Lizzie to fly a kite at age 10. We even get to meet Mr Collin's brothers (who turn out to be even more repulsive than
he - if that's even possible)
This is simply nonstop fun all the way, despite its length. Rooper is an amazingly spunky heroine, with some great punchlines
along the way. Elliot Cowan makes a near-perfect Darcy, playing off the Firth image with a sly wink, and ultimately finally
revealing a little humanity beneath the stolid façade toward the end of the film. If the last hour or so isn't quite as refreshing
as the setup, as Amanda finds herself suddenly back in the modern world searching for Lizzie after Mr. Bennet is injured in a
duel (you fans of the novel may get the irony of that scenario), the bulk of "Lost in Austen" is impeccably imaginative and
superbly realized.

One of the best gags involves Amanda being asked to sing, and let's just say she doesn't exactly have a classical repertoire
at her vocal cords' fingertips, so to speak, launching instead into an iconic 60s pop tune. The song itself is not included in
this version, just the priceless reactions from Bingley and Darcy. Frankly I think the scene works perfectly without the
audience ever actually hearing Amanda sing, it makes Bingley's punchline all the better.

This was simply a perfect follow-up to the 1995 BBC version of Pride and Prejudice. These two very different pieces go arm
in arm and really should be seen one after the other. You Firth fans beware--Cowan cuts a rather dashing figure himself
emerging from water (have I said too much?). Any Pride and Prejudice fan is going to love "Lost in Austen" - it's fun, it's smart
and most of all it humanizes these characters in extremely unexpected ways.

Overall, it’s an intriguing exploration into Pride and Prejudice that makes it much more of a whimsical adventure as some
plotlines grow incredibly peculiar and new couplings are forged that one wouldn't have dreamed from Austen’s novel. The
uneven yet highly spirited and fun "Lost in Austen" makes a nice escapist Darcy dream for those of us who may have worn
out our copies of the book or various versions of the film and are in the mood for something entirely different… like the idea
that Elizabeth Bennet may some day just show up in our bathroom.