Thursday, November 25, 2010

DVD Review: Lost in Austen

Over the years, I’ve become a reluctant fan of Pride and Prejudice in all its incarnations. I say “reluctant” because, on the surface, it’s a fluffy romance, the prototype of a jillion stories of star-crossed-lovers. (But oh, underneath—such depth, wit, and barbed social commentary.) So I was surprised to find that I’d missed this four-part BBC miniseries when it aired in 2008. But that’s what Netflix is for.

Lost in Austen’s premise is simple: Hip urbanite Amanda Price (Jemima Rooper) finds that she’s mysteriously swapped places with Elizabeth Bennet, the heroine of her favorite novel, Pride and Prejudice, via a little door in her shower. In an echo of Peggy Sue Got Married, Amanda can’t quite believe that she’s been transported to the early 19th century, but she can’t get back and has to muddle through the next few weeks in the strangely familiar setting of the novel she knows so well. (Elizabeth, meanwhile, is marooned in 21st-century London.)

Stranded in the Bennets’ house, Amanda finds that the plot of Pride and Prejudice is just getting underway: New neighbor Mr. Bingley pays his first visit and soon introduces his brooding friend, Mr. Darcy (Elliot Cowan). Amanda, plopped down in Georgian England with her pageboy haircut, leather jacket, and lip gloss, claims that she’s “a friend of Elizabeth’s from Hammersmith,” which the family seems to think is explanation enough.

Amanda looks on in wonder as her favorite novel unfolds, but there’s a problem: Elizabeth isn’t there to meet Mr. Darcy at the first fateful ball. And that flaw in the plot sets other flaws in motion: Bingley falls in love with Amanda, not Jane; Jane, not Charlotte, is wooed by the creepy Mr. Collins; Charlotte threatens to chuck it all and move to Africa; and Darcy has about as much charm as an ingrown toenail. Amanda tries and tries to get the plot back on track, but her schemes spin off more chaotic results. Before long, it’s a mess—not at all what Jane Austen wanted, as Amanda keeps thinking. And how will she ever get Elizabeth back to the 19th century, where she can marry Darcy and complete the story?

The best part about Lost in Austen is that it transcends the parody genre, although it’s funny throughout. At some point, you (and Amanda) have to just throw out the plot of Pride and Prejudice; this story has become a different animal, and old characters begin taking on new dimensions: There’s much more to Mr. Wickham than meets the eye, Mrs. Bennet (Alex Kingston) displays a backbone she never had in the book, and Lady Catherine de Bourgh cheats at cards. Even modern Amanda, who seems made out of snark, shows another side when the question becomes her own destiny and happiness. In the end, she has to write her own novel—as we all do, one way or another.

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