Review: Lost in Austen (2008 movie)

Amanda Price (Jemima Rooper) is a likable twenty-something Londoner with an appreciative but uninspiring boyfriend, a divorced mother who thinks she should get married, and a rather wild flatmate named Piranha. All the romance in Amanda’s life comes from reading and re-reading Jane Austen.

One evening while enjoying her favorite novel, Pride and Prejudice, for the umpteenth time, she hears a noise from her bathroom, and when she goes to investigate she finds Elizabeth Bennet, the protagonist of Pride and Prejudice, standing in her bathtub and looking around with delight.

Amanda naturally supposes that she must be hallucinating, but Elizabeth insists that she’s not a figment of anyone’s imagination, neither Amanda's nor Jane Austen's, and she explains that she got where she is by going through a strange door in an attic in her home, a door that one would expect from its unlikely location to lead to the outside far above the ground. Amanda asks to see this door and Elizabeth shows it to her, and moments later she finds herself transported across space, time, and reality to the first pages of the novel.

But the door is now closed and locked, with Elizabeth on the other side.

Amanda somehow manages to convince the Bennets that she’s a friend of Elizabeth’s and that they've swapped places so Elizabeth can get some writing done, but the door remains impassable and the plot goes more and more off the rails despite her best efforts.

The script, by Guy Andrews, is clever and original and nearly as witty as Austen. (A few bits I found annoying, but then I can be hard to get along with.) Amanda finds herself more or less taking Elizabeth’s place as the protagonist, but she’s far from a plug-in replacement. We also get some surprising but plausible insights into some of the characters, the charming cad Wickham and the nasty Kitty Bingley in particular. Production values are excellent, and so is the casting.

I highly recommend the film to anyone with the slightest interest in Jane Austen. Which brings up an obvious question: Is it necessary to be familiar with the original novel? Well, after watching the start of the film and finding I didn’t remember Pride and Prejudice as well as I would have liked, I took the time to re-read it and enjoyed it even more than I had previously, laughing out loud more than once. While I think I would have enjoyed the film either way, I think having the original story and characters fresh in my mind made it even better. Besides, I’d recommend reading Pride and Prejudice in any case.

On the other hand, a fair number of jokes assume that you've seen the immensely popular 1995 British miniseries with Colin Firth (which I just reviewed), so rather than reading the book you might actually be better off watching that. Ideally, read the novel, watch the Colin First miniseries, and then see this. I realize this seems like a major bit of preparatory homework to do just to watch a movie, but I think it would be worth it.

Incidentally, Lost in Austen was itself originally broadcast as a miniseries in the UK, but you’d never know it. It comes across as a seamless feature film.

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