TV on DVD Review: Lost in Austen (2008)

The Hit UK Miniseries
Hits DVD on 4/14/09

When you look in the Yellow Pages at the ads describing the services of local plumbers, I think you'd be hard pressed to find one that could assist you in the removal of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice heroine Elizabeth Bennet (Quantum of Solace’s sole bright spot-- Gemma Arterton) who suddenly appears in the bathroom of modern British singleton, Amanda Price (The Black Dahlia and Kinky Boots actress Jemima Rooper).

Normally-- since we’re dealing with literary shenanigans anyway-- I would've advised Amanda to track down the bibliophile super sleuth Thursday Next from Jasper Fforde’s brilliant book series filled with shape-shifting, time-traveling characters of classic literature. However, in the 2008 blockbuster ITV miniseries (which also aired in 2009 on America’s Ovation TV)--Lost in Austen-- screenwriter Guy Andrews and director Dan Zeff wisely avoided the temptation to complicate things even further and instead play off of the insatiable international and overwhelmingly female appetite for all things Jane Austen.

In doing so, they dedicate the four-episode-- (roughly three hour running time)--of their miniseries to taking a humorous, revisionist, science fiction/fantasy tinged approach on what is arguably Austen’s greatest masterpiece, Pride and Prejudice as Rooper’s Amanda Price finds herself switching places with Arterton’s Elizabeth Bennet. Of course, one could argue that sending Amanda Price (most likely named for the headstrong Mansfield Park heroine Fanny Price) back in time through a bathroom portal a la C.S. Lewis’s magical cupboard in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to Bennet’s Longbourn home in the style of Mark Twain's The Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court is a tired device that probably doesn’t mesh well in the world of Austen.

However, Zeff’s Lost in Austen makes for charming, escapist chick-lit like fare that struck such a chord with British viewers that American Beauty, Road to Perdition, Jarhead and Revolutionary Road director Sam Mendes has optioned the miniseries with the intent of producing it as a feature film for Columbia Pictures.

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 and In the Good Old Summertime twist applied to Pride in You’ve Got Mail, Gurinder Chadha’s visual feast Bride and Prejudice, and Joe Wright’s classically stylized Oscar nominated work starring Keira Knightley.

While I originally became acquainted with ITV's critically-acclaimed series upon receiving the first episode in screener form to review for Ovation TV’s romantic, literary based “Tall, Dark and Handsome” week of programming designed to introduce Americans to Lost in Austen as well as the newest Keira Knightley starring version of Dr. Zhivago along with other literary favorites including Like Water for Chocolate--sadly due to a change in my DirecTV service, I lost Ovation and with it my access to the three remaining episodes.

Thankfully, those without Ovation, those who missed it the first time around, or those who simply want to add it to their DVD collection will be thrilled to discover that the good folks at Image Entertainment are serving up the disc conveniently in time for early Mother's Day shopping on April 14.

Restoring the original 1.78:1 widescreen aspect ratio that's enhanced for 16:9 televisions to preserve the lush cinematic sweep of the miniseries which boasts exceptional and filmic production values in a high quality DVD transfer made all the more gorgeous on an up-convert or Blu-ray player-- all four episodes can be screened in one epic viewing on a single disc that truly allows you to get Lost in Austen minus the annoyance of commercials and breaks and installments. Still retaining the original Dolby Digital stereo surround employed in its British debut but with the additional option of subtitles for the deaf and/or hearing impaired, one major bonus for enthusiasts of both Austen and indeed this version of Austen is the 43 minute behind the scenes featurette that chronicled the making of the miniseries.

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.

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.

Of course, she's barely able to contain her excitement given the chance to meet Mr. Darcy (played by Golden Compass star Elliot Cowan) in the flesh but when Mr. Bingley finds himself entranced by the sultry attire and low neckline of what Amanda tries to pass off as clothes suitable for otter hunting in her native Hammersmith—soon her very presence jeopardizes Jane’s relationship with Bingley as well as the fated one between the absent Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy.

Avoiding the opportunity to catch up with Arterton’s iconic Elizabeth as she struggles to exist in modern society a la the Amy Adams charmer Enchanted and instead only catching up with her character for the final thirty minutes, the rest of Lost in Austen wholeheartedly devotes itself—both to its strength and weakness—to the plight Rooper’s Price.

While Rooper tries her best and adds considerable winning charm to the piece—I realized I was only an hour into the work when I discovered that her overly forceful and not entirely sympathetic character began to repel with Andrews’ penned attempts to try far too hard to strike comedic gold by cashing in on the societal contradictions of the two polar opposite time periods.

This is evident in her first twenty-four hours under the Bennet's roof when the filmmakers make the bizarre decision to make Amanda—in stark contrast to the woman we meet at the film’s opening who says that obsessively reading Pride and Prejudice has given her standards—needlessly flashes her feminine area (away from view) following the erroneous assumption that she’s on an adult version of Candid Camera when she wakes up to find Lydia Bennet snuggling with her in the covers.

While Amanda Price’s off-the-wall plight and devotion to the world of Austen help make her endearing, she’s hardly an adequate replacement for Lizzie as Amanda soon kicks one male character in his privates, refers to Caroline Bingley as a “bumface,” constantly berates Wickham with “hands off-- big time” remarks, and sends Mr. Bingley into near alcoholism when she tries to turn him off by implying she’s a lesbian, and inadvertently leads one character into a horrifically bad marriage.

And furthermore, they’ve dulled the personalities of the rest of the ensemble considerably, which is also evident in creative costuming and makeup techniques to let the rest of the cast blend in with the scenery and have Rooper with her blunt shoulder length bob hair cut perpetually straight and down but given typically the best standout dresses including a breathtakingly vivid deep teal blue number that ensures she’s the one our eye follows regardless of the goings-on.

Intriguingly using the tagline of “same story, different centuries” to draw you in, 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. One strong asset to bibliophiles is the amount of references to other Austen works with a line that pays homage to Emma and other plot devices and lines straight out of Shakespeare, including one crude observation pulled right from Othello.

Overall, it’s an intriguing exploration into Pride and Prejudice that makes it much more of a whimsical and dark Choose Your Own Adventure as some plotlines grow incredibly peculiar and new couplings are forged that one wouldn’t have dreamed from Austen’s novel that make you wish Thursday Next perhaps had have been involved in lieu of the less than dynamic character Amanda Price.

Ultimately, despite a great affection for some of its various interpretations such as You’ve Got Mail and Bride and Prejudice, I’ll still take the BBC Firth version of the tale over any other remake any day of the week. However, 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 (even though I think I’m pretty safe in saying that most of us would’ve preferred Colin Firth).