Director – Dan Zeff, Teleplay – Guy Andrews, Producer – Kate McKerrell, Photography – David Higgs, Music – Christian Henson, Production Design – Michael Pickwoad. Production Company – Mammoth Screen (Austen) Limited
Jemima Rooper (Amanda Price), Elliot Cowan (Fitzwilliam Darcy), Tom Mison (Charles Bingley), Hugh Bonneville (Claude Bennet), Alex Kingston (Mrs Bennet), Morven Christie (Jane Bennet), Christina Cole (Caroline Bingley), Guy Henry (William Collins), Tom Riley (Captain George Wickham), Gemma Arterton (Elizabeth Bennet), Lindsay Duncan (Lady Catherine de Bourgh), Perdita Weeks (Lydia Bennet), Florence Hoath (Kitty Bennet), Ruby Bentall (Mary Bennet), Daniel Percival (Michael Dolan), Michelle Duncan (Charlotte Lucas), Gugu Mbatha Raw (Piranha)
Amanda Price is a contemporary single girl, living in Hammersmith, London. She happily retreats from a no-hope boyfriend and dull job as a bank clerk into the world of ideal romance that exists in the works of Jane Austen. One evening she is startled to encounter Elizabeth Bennet, the heroine of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, in her bathroom. Elizabeth shows her a door in the wall that has led through from her own time. Amanda walks through, only for the door to shut, trapping her in the 19th Century and Elizabeth in the modern day. Amanda passes herself off as Elizabeth’s friend to the rest of the Bennet family, saying that Elizabeth has gone to stay in Hammersmith. However, as soon as Amanda begins encountering the characters from Pride and Prejudice, she begins to have an effect on the narrative. Charles Bingley is attracted to her rather than Jane as he is meant to in the story. When it looks as though the creepy Mr Collins will propose to Jane, Amanda is forced to agree to marry him instead. As Amanda tries to get the story back on track and everyone to connect up with the person they are meant to, her modern behaviour causes considerable upset within the society circles of the era. After meeting Mr Darcy, Amanda finds his attitude incredibly rude, while he is morally offended by her seemingly manipulative actions. Through this, the two find themselves attracted to one another.
This British mini-series, originally aired in four one-hour parts, has one of the most winning premises for an arts series that one has seen in some time. Namely that a modern woman switches places with Elizabeth Bennet, the heroine of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), and ends up warping the story and then romancing Mr Darcy herself. Indeed, Lost in Austen seems at the forefront of a spate of conceptually wacky Pride and Prejudice/Jane Austen deconstructions that have all come out around the same time. Things were started by the Bollywood take Bride and Prejudice (2004) and around the same time as Lost in Austen aired American author Gwyn Cready published the surprisingly similar Seducing Mr Darcy (2008) wherein the heroine was propelled through time by a ‘mystic massage’ and ends up wooing Mr Darcy and also turning the narrative of the book on its head; there was the similar subsequent US tv series Sex and the Austen Girl (2010) wherein a modern and Regency girl switch places; the novel Austenland (2007) by Shannon Hale, which was later filmed, about a modern woman seeking romantic fulfilment in a Jane Austen recreation park; and the film A Modern Pride and Prejudice (2011). Even more outré was Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009) later filmed as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016), which interweaves the book’s narrative with zombie attacks and has the Bennet sisters as trained ninjas and Mr Darcy as a monster hunter. The last couple of years have also seen a variety of Jane Austen biopics, Becoming Jane (2007), the BBC’s Miss Austen Regrets (2008) and the modern-set The Jane Austen Book Club (2007), while 2007 also saw musical adaptations of both Pride and Prejudice and Emma (1815), as well as the biographical Jane: The Musical (2006).
Lost in Austen is what is commonly referred to in fan fiction as a Mary Sue story. The term ‘Mary Sue’ originated in Star Trek (1966-9) fan fiction to refer to a fan-written story where the author has clearly inserted a wish fulfilment substitute for themselves, someone who is beautiful, sexually alluring, highly accomplished etc and ends up catching the attention of and having a fabulous romance/relationship with the leading character (ie. the author’s object of desire). Lost in Austen is slightly mitigated by the fact that it operates on a much higher literary plane and that the author is a male as opposed to a woman as most Mary Sue authors are. Nevertheless, is in all essential regards Lost in Austen a Mary Sue story about a woman entering a work of fiction and having the male half of “the greatest love story of all time” (as the script itself describes it) fall in love with her (along with most of the other characters in the story at various other points, including even one of the female characters).
Such criticism raised, Lost in Austen is nevertheless an absolute delight. Guy Andrews has a superb grasp of the formalism of Jane Austen’s dialogue and allows the elegant play of manners and veiled barbs to dance with a real joy. The mini-series is as much worth watching for the joy of the writing as it is anything else. It certainly demands a close familiarity with the story and characters of Pride and Prejudice in order to grasp the nuances, although can certainly be enjoyed without (as was the case with my viewing companion who was completely ignorant of matters Austen).
Guy Andrews not only weaves an appealing culture clash story and romance out of the concept but uses it to sharply interrogate the characters and the social milieu of the story. Mrs Bennet is criticized as being predatory in her desire to procure (financially) worthwhile marriages for her daughters; Darcy is shown to be disastrously wrong about some of the harsh judgements he passes on characters; Wickham is redeemed from being a cad and given a less damning spin where it is shown that it was Georgiana Darcy who had a girlish crush on him rather than he who ravaged her; while in a daring move Caroline Bingley is shown to secretly hold lesbian tendencies. Jemima Rooper even has several stretches of dialogue where she takes Darcy to task for being a useless aristocrat: “You would benefit from an occupation of some kind. You have no function. No purpose.”
There are times that the mini-series sets out to upset the politeness of the milieu and its conventions – like the image of Jemima Rooper demanding to know if she is on Candid Camera or “that Jim Carrey film” [The Truman Show (1998)] and wondering what she has to do to get out of there by whipping her dress up and showing Morven Christie her “landing strip” and asking if she has to snog her. “Drrrr,” says Jemima Rooper at one point, “That’s Jane Austen spinning in her grave like a cat in a tumble dryer.” The romance of the era is punctured by historical realities such as Jemima Rooper facing the prospect of having to brush her teeth with soap and a faggot of twigs. Not too much is given over to how Elizabeth Bennet thrives in the modern day, although she (James Bond girl Gemma Atterton) does turn up in the last episode, having slotted surprisingly easily into the modern world and become a nanny. “Elizabeth Bennet is lending me her mobile?” Jemima Rooper exclaims.
The mini-series comes very much post-informed by the classic BBC tv mini-series adaptation Pride and Prejudice (1995). There is even a scene where Jemima Rooper persuades Elliot Cowan to take off his shirt and have a dip in the lake recreating the now infamous scene (made iconic by the Bridget Jones books) where Jennifer Ehle comes across Colin Firth’s Darcy in his shirt and breeches just having been for a swim. “I’m having a bit of a strange postmodern moment here,” Jemina Rooper comments while melting into a pile of lust. Elsewhere the mini-series attempts to gain some seal approval by reusing the costumes from a number of other Jane Austen film and tv adaptations.
The actors work superbly well. Elliot Cowan does an excellent job in nailing Darcy, delivering the dialogue with all the requisite brooding and rudeness, albeit shot through with a pouty boyish vulnerability at times. Quite clearly, Cowan is standing in the shadow of and undeniably influenced by Colin Firth’s definite portrayal of Darcy in the abovementioned BBC mini-series but he is nevertheless excellent. Expect to hear more things from Elliot Cowan soon. There are some other extremely good performances. Indeed, every single above-listed actor can be commended, most notable being Hugh Bonneville who seems to have channelled Jim Broadbent in his roly-poly absent-minded Mr Bennet; Tom Riley as the dashingly roguish but surprisingly redeemable Wickham; Morven Christie as the appealingly sweet-natured Jane; and Christina Cole who delivers Caroline in a series of archly purred acid-dripping barbs.
Lost in Austen was an acclaimed success and a film adaptation has been announced.
(Winner in this site’s Top 10 Films of 2008 list. Nominee for Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress (Morven Christie) and Best Supporting Actress (Christina Cole) at this site’s Best of 2008 Awards).