Review: Lost in Austen

Lost in Austen
(Lost in Austen was a 4-part mini-series originally broadcasted in September of 2008 on ITV.)

I love Jane Austen. Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve devoured her books from Northanger Abbey to Mansfield Park to Sense and Sensibility. I love getting lost in the world of manners and propriety and terribly clever dialogue, where the women are headstrong but not precocious and the men are so dashing and handsome and swoon-worthy. But my favorite and probably the most well-known of Jane Austen’s heroes is Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, played to perfection by Colin Firth in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (Jennifer Ehle, who plays Elizabeth Bennet is equally perfect). Mr. Darcy is the ultimate in British propriety: he is an intelligent, wealthy aristocrat known for his principles and the rigid standard of behavior that he imposes upon himself. He is also an unbearable snob. When he encounters the feisty, mouthy, headstrong Elizabeth Bennet, he finds himself rather discomfited for the first time in his life. She is not at all like the proper, biddable girls he had known in the past. She is a pain in the ass and a baggage. On top of that, she belongs to a loud, boisterous family led by an anxious, nagging mother desperate to marry off her five daughters and her feisty attitude is not only tolerated by her fond father, but often times encouraged. Naturally, Darcy soon finds himself bewildered and madly in love with her.

There might be spoilers if you haven’t already read the book.

Everyone knows the story: Mr. and Mrs. Bennet have five daughters: Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Kitty, and Lydia. Mrs. Bennett desires an advantageous match for all of her daughters because she is afraid that the family will not be able to sustain itself if Mr. Bennett were to die and his heir Mr. Collins kicks them out of the house, since the property is entailed (which means only the male heir can inherit). Mr. Bennet, much to Mrs. Bennet’s dismay, doesn’t seem to care. When she hears news of a wealthy, landed gentleman named Mr. Charles Bingley has moved into Netherfield, a country estate near their house, she pesters her husband to find a way to introduce their daughters to him. At a local assembly, the Bennet girls meet Mr. Bingley and his good friend, Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy. While Jane and Bingley immediately hit it off, Elizabeth and Darcy instantly clash and hate each other when Elizabeth hears Darcy speaking poorly of her. Bingley confesses to Darcy that he is in love with Jane, but Darcy dissuades him of the notion because he doesn’t think that Jane Bennet is good enough for Bingley and Bingley rejects Jane. Because of this, Elizabeth and Darcy fight a little bit more each time they are thrown together, but as it turns out, love and attraction is brewing underneath all that enmity and they fall in love. Things work out for Jane and Bingley as well and everyone lives happily ever after. This is the PRIDE AND PREJUDICE that our intrepid heroine Amanda Price knows by heart and loves.

“I’m not hung up about Darcy. I do not sit at home with the pause button on Colin Firth in clingy pants, okay? I love the love story. I love Elizabeth. I love the manners and language and the courtesy. It’s become part of who I am and what I want. I’m saying that I have standards.” – Amanda Price, Lost in Austen

Amanda Price (Jemima Rooper) is a twenty-something Londoner with a job she doesn’t love, a boor of a boyfriend who proposes to her with the tab of a beer can, and an apartment she shares with her roommate Piranha (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Every time Amanda experiences a particularly harrowing day, she winds down with a glass of wine and her well-read copy of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, which she has read and re-read many times. One night, after fighting with a boyfriend Michael who passes out on her couch, she goes into the bathroom and finds none other than Elizabeth Bennett (Gemma Arterton) standing in the bathtub. Elizabeth explains to a bewildered Amanda, who is convinced she is losing her mind, that there is a portal in the attic of their house which leads to a hidden cupboard in Amanda’s bathroom and it is through this portal that Elizabeth has managed to cross over to Amanda’s world. When Amanda goes in through the cupboard to check it out for herself, the door shuts and Amanda is suddenly trapped in the Bennets’ attic with Elizabeth Bennet on the other side of the door. Amanda soon meets Mr. Bennett to whom she introduces herself as a very good friend of Elizabeth visiting from Hammersmith. Elizabeth, she explains, has decided to hie herself off to Hammersmith on a sabbatical to write a novel and Amanda has come to stay with the Bennets in her stead. Mr. Bennet accepts this explanation without qualm as it is seemingly something the impetuous Elizabeth would do and introduces her to the family. Lydia, Kitty, and Mary are fascinated with Amanda who is dressed in a leather-jacket and a curious-looking “tunic,” that must be all the rage in Hammersmith, a place quite alien to them, while Mrs. Bennet (the formidable Alex Kingston), sensing a potential threat in Amanda for the affections of the eligible gentlemen in town that her daughters might otherwise receive, is distant and snippy. Jane (Morven Christie), the eldest and has a close relationship with Elizabeth, is initially wary of Amanda because she had never heard Elizabeth mention her before, but soon warms up to her when she realizes that Amanda shares many of Elizabeth’s quirks and attitude.

Amanda slowly acclimates herself to her new, foreign surroundings and just in time for the assembly where the Bennets originally meet Bingley (the super handsome Tom Mison) and Darcy (the drool-worthy Elliot Cowan). When they are introduced to Bingley, Amanda finds herself in a pickle when she realizes that Bingley is attracted to her, earning herself Mrs. Bennet’s enmity. Jane is happy for her new friend and tells her that Bingley is an incredible match, but Amanda quickly points out that Jane is the one who is supposed to be with Bingley. Jane is reluctant to believe her, but secretly hopeful. Amanda soon meets Darcy who is as handsome and snobbish and priggish and kind of a dick as he is in the book and while Amanda is reluctantly attracted to him, she dismisses him as a “miserable sod,” and tells herself that he is destined to be with Elizabeth Bennet. Bingley, however, is persistent in his pursuit of Amanda, especially after Amanda, convinced that she has mucked everything up beyond fixing, drinks a little too much at the assembly and in her distressed state makes out with Bingley. Her attempted rejection of Bingley later on leads to this hilarious exchange:

Bingley: I’m drawn to you! I’m a man.
Amanda: And I’m a woman… and I’m drawn to… other women!
Bingley: You mean there really are ladies who… steer the punt from the Cambridge end?

In an effort to get the novel back on track, Amanda talks Jane into visiting Bingley at Netherfield telling her that the Bingleys had invited her even though Jane fears that with the bad weather, it wouldn’t be a good idea to ride there. When Mary tells Amanda that Jane almost died from a bout with grippe last time, she follows Jane there and mucks things up a little bit more. Upon being insulted by Caroline, Amanda quips that she is worth “£27,000 a year.” When the odious Mr. Collins shows up, she manages to get herself engaged with him (he breaks off the engagement when Wickham, playing a mean trick on Amanda, tells everyone that her “fortune” is from fishmongering), which pushes Elizabeth’s good friend Charlotte Lucas (who originally marries Collins in the book) to become a missionary and go to Africa to avoid a life of lonely spinsterhood. The consequences of Amanda invading this literary world gets progressively worse: Jane marries Mr. Collins in order to save Longbourne; Bingley becomes a drunk and elopes with Lydia, which forces Mr. Bennet to challenge Bingley to a duel and results in a cracked skull for Mr. Bennet; and Darcy gets engaged with Caroline Bingley. Oddly enough, Amanda’s one ally in all of this is Wickham who, as it turned out, received a bum rap in the book. Meanwhile, Amanda has taken to going up to the attic at Longbourne and pleading with Elizabeth to open the portal door and come back. But Elizabeth doesn’t answer. How the hell will a London girl from 2008 fix the mess she has created in Georgian England when all she has on hand are a tube of lip gloss, one cigarette, and some paracetamols?

Jemima Rooper is a delight as Amanda Price and carries the film rather well. She’s spunky, unafraid, and refuses to be cowed. She is a good replacement Elizabeth (oddly enough, Gemma Arterton and Jemima Rooper looked eerily alike) and made me realize that even though the character of Elizabeth Bennet was written by Austen 200 years ago, she is really surprisingly modern in both attitude and behavior. We only see a little bit of how Elizabeth handles being stuck in 2008, but it is believable that she will easily acclimate to her surroundings and fit in. Elliot Cowan as Mr. Darcy is very handsome and quite good at portraying a man with a permanent stick up his butt. When he starts to thaw and slowly becomes charming, I just about got light-headed enough to swoon. Even more yummy is the actor who plays Bingley, Tom Mison. When I first started watching, I wondered if there was going to be a clever twist where Amanda ends up with Bingley; he was that cute. The dialogue was quick and clever; the twists and turns were fun and unexpected; the cast was just perfect. I have to give props to Alex Kingston who totally nailed the role of Mrs. Bennet; she was neurotic and whiny and an anxious wreck, but somehow, the portrayal of Kingston made the character sympathetic. Mrs. Bennet really is just a concerned mother who wants to make sure that all her daughters are married well and taken care of. You could see that she takes on the Herculean task of getting all of her five daughters married because Mr. Bennet (Hugh Bonneville) doesn’t seem to care at all and would rather bury his head in a book than worry about his wife and daughters being kicked out of Longbourne if he died and Mr. Collins decided to kick them all out of the house.

I’m giving this mini-series a A- because I was really disappointed that we don’t get to see scenes of Amanda adjusting to the little inconveniences of Georgian England. For one thing, there’s no electricity, running water, toothbrushes, and other things that a modern girl might take for granted. SPOILER: There are a couple of clever little scenes that make fun of this. For example, when Amanda returns to her world, the first thing she does is brush her teeth; Michael, her boyfriend, tells her that Elizabeth, who has become a nanny, keeps trying to brush her charges’ teeth with powder. I also found it hard to believe that everyone was just so accepting that Elizabeth would just disappear WITHOUT TELLING ANYONE and hardly anyone blinks an eye when a strange woman claiming to be Elizabeth’s dear friend even though Elizabeth has never mentioned her before, could just show up and start getting into everybody’s business. But then again, I’m talking about a movie whose main conceit is Elizabeth Bennet showing up in a bathroom through a magical portal in modern-day London, so really, who am I to nitpick? Other than that, this movie is delightful, hilarious, and witty. It’ll make you laugh out loud, cringe in embarrassment for Amanda in parts, cry a little bit, but you’ll have a lot of fun. Check it out.

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