Lost in Lost in Austen

I saw the film “Lost in Austen”. Actually it was a four part BBC series (which I happened to catch on streaming Netflix). The premise is very simple. Amanda Price, a modern day young woman in London, upon rereading “Pride and Prejudice”, finds herself somehow swapped with Elizabeth Bennet. While the fictional Ms. Bennet is presumably left to cope with the unfamiliar world of post-millenial London, Amanda must navigate the perilous terrain of the upper classes at play in early nineteenth century England.

This could have been a complete mess. There have been so many knock-offs of Ms. Austen, from “Clueless” to “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”. But this one is different. The writer, Guy Andrews, not only knows the intricacies of Jane Austen’s masterpiece inside and out, but he writes as if you do too. It’s all perfectly entertaining if you haven’t read the book, or perhaps have read it once and forgotten much of it, but if you really know the book inside out, then this film is a treasure map, leading you through the subtleties, the delicate jockeying for social position, sudden shifts in balance of power, delicate feints and clever subterfuges that form the lifeblood of Austen’s greatest work.

I can’t actually think of anything else like it. Rather than the usual pop-cultural trick in a “fish out of water” story of replacing a masterpiece with something coarse and obvious, “Lost in Austen” draws from the intricate strengths of the original work, building on them expertly to create an alternate version of Ms. Austen’s universe that is in every way true to the spirit of the original. In fact, the more familiar you are with the original work, the more you will enjoy “Lost in Austen”. If you are a fan of “Pride and Prejudice”, then you already know these characters — you know them intimately, know what they will do when faced with a novel set of circumstances. And yet Andrews’ biggest conceit is to suggest that you don’t know them nearly as well as you believed you had all these years. They say and do surprising things, revealing novel dimensions, but always in ways that are completely consistent with Austen’s original intent.

Part of this is due to Andrew’s perfect ear for Austen’s dialog. Everything that emerges from the mouths of these characters — from Mr. Darcy to Mrs. Bennet to Mr. Collins — is dead-on accurate, a perfectly pitched expression of how speech from that particular character would actually emerge from the pen of Jane Austen.

I think this may be something very rare indeed — a genuine work of post-modern genius on television. If you have ever thought there was more to Lady Catherine de Bourgh than meets the eye, that perhaps Georgiana Darcy was not as she first appears, if ever you harbored questions about the dynamic between George Wyckham and Caroline Bingley, or if you are simply a fan of Austen’s masterpiece (you know who you are), you should watch this film immediately.

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