Blightyvision: “Lost in Austen”

Written by Guy Andrews
Directed by Dan Zeff
Starring Jemima Rooper, Elliot Cowan, and Hugh Bonneville

Any girl of any sort of classic literary bent in high school had a thing for Jane Austen.  No, sorry, let me rephrase that … had a thing for Pride and Prejudice. No, wait, that’s still not entirely right.  Ah, okay, I’ve got it.

They had a thing for Mr. Darcy.

Not surprising — everyone loves a tsundere, after all, even the ladies.  Amanda Price (Jemima Rooper of The Black Dahlia) is pretty much a textbook example of that, using her worn copy of Pride and Prejudice to retreat from the life of your average London twentysomething.  There are times when she wants nothing more than to escape into the fantasy world she knows so well — and really, it’s not a spoiler to say that from here we’re taken straight into a “be careful what you wish for” scenario when she swaps places with Austen’s heroine Elizabeth Bennet via a door in Amanda’s bathroom wall.

“Lost in Austen” proceeds pretty much as you’d expect from there.  Having swapped places with Elizabeth (whose here-and-now adventures we never really see) and having to pass herself off as a long-distance friend, Amanda finds she can’t assimilate herself into Austen’s world quite as well as she always imagined.  Not only that, she’s come in right at the beginning of the story and the main player is missing, and she finds herself in a mad dash to try to keep things going as they should while she waits for Elizabeth’s return.  Wacky hijinks ensue of all the sorts you’d expect: humorous anachronisms, Amanda’s extensive knowledge of the story making her appear to the others to be some sort of meddlesome witch-lady, and her own issues with keeping her mitts off Fitzwilliam Darcy (Elliot Cowan of “The Fixer” and a handful of costume dramas).

Things, as expected, do not go off without a hitch.  Amanda’s attempts to see the Bennet sisters married off to the right people are almost as frantic as (and far more ill-fated than) those of Mrs. Bennet herself, played by Alex Kingston (River Song of “Doctor Who”).  The girls end up in all the wrong places at the wrong times, with the wrong men, and without Elizabeth present to play her part, Amanda is helpless to try and set things right.  Add to this the fact that most of the men — and even some of the women — she encounters fall for her almost immediately.

Yeah, you guessed it.  Amanda is pretty much a Mary Sue.

This isn’t to say she’s necessarily poorly written.  Amanda is a modern chick — bordering on cookie-cutter but still sympathetic — with a fair bit of personality to her, and the writer handles both her dialogue and Austen’s sedate Regency humor well without one or the other feeling alienating.  And Rooper plays her believably; while she’s a bit grating initially, she grows on you as she comes to terms with her place in her new fictional setting.  Unfortunately, while it’s an interesting concept, there aren’t really many ways to present a story like this without it becoming very fanfic-y.

But if you can call this a fanfic, at least everyone is admirably in-character, and that’s the best part of the whole production: the entire Pride and Prejudice cast would actually do a fantastic job in a straight-up adaptation.  Cowan is especially good as Darcy, being just Firth-y enough to satisfy the fangirl community’s mental image while still making the role his own.  The Bennet parents are also excellent and don’t get nearly enough screen time — Kingston does very well with what has always been something of an unforgiving role, and Hugh Bonneville (of “Bonekickers”) plays Mr. Bennet with all the understated dignity he deserves.

Really, the biggest flaw of “Lost in Austen” may not even look like a flaw to some people.  It’s purely a matter of taste, and the show is an exercise in wish-fulfillment.  Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing depends almost entirely upon how close to the viewer’s wish said fulfillment is.  I did enjoy it, personally, but was continuously rattled by the blatant fanfic aspect.  It didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the entirety of it, and I enjoyed the genuine dramatic turns the plot took.  But every time someone’s eyes strayed from their intended love interest and lighted on Amanda, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes.  Had it been played a bit more for comic effect, or had it been somewhat more self-aware in its tropiness, it would have been excusable and just that extra bit more entertaining.

As it stands, though, it’s passably entertaining fluff for a wide audience and a dream come true for the slim, super-specific demographic that is The Darcy Fangirl.  Or maybe I’m just not enough of a romantic.  Should they ever put out a follow-up series, “Lost in Wodehouse,” I doubt you’d hear a single negative word out of me.

“Lost in Austen” is available on DVD in both R1 and R2.  And if there is any justice in the world, the entire cast will be lifted as-is for the movie adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.