Austenland — which opens in theaters tomorrow and is based on a novel by Shannon Hale — is a cute if often insipid romantic comedy about a woman whose life is consumed by Jane Austen novels. Somewhat desperately, the protagonist, Jane Hayes (Keri Russell), goes to a Regency-style live-in theme park where she finds out cookie-cutter fictional love is not what she wants, and then in the end she gets it anyway. For some reason, Austenland writer/director Jerusha Hess — who previously co-wrote Napoleon Dynamite — decided to throw a sexual assault into the movie. (The filmmakers did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)
Jane, walking alone through the beautiful house at night, is surprised and then threatened by Mr. Wattlesbrook (Rupert Vansittart), the elderly husband of the woman who runs the place. He attempts to force himself on Jane — the precise nature of the sexual contact he wants is unclear, but Jane makes it clear verbally and physically that the contact is unwanted. She eventually knocks him to the ground to get him to stop.
"This is so not Regency-appropriate," she says, and I take it this is supposed to lend some levity to the situation. Awesome, a joke. Just what this scene needed. So hilarious to suggest that the old-timey setting is what makes this inappropriate. Ironically, her joke also suggests that sexual assault is more inappropriate in the early 1800s than it is in 2013. Maybe Jane thinks rape didn't exist in the Regency?
The scene where Mr. Wattlesbrook throws himself at Jane and won't stop until she knocks him over seems to have nothing to do with the plot for quite some time, despite the fact that Jane and her attacker continue to live under the same fancy roof. The characters never talk about it again; that is, until Jane gets angry at Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour) and threatens to sue.
"I wasn't the first guest Mr. Wattlesbrook assaulted, was I?" Jane says, using the sexual assault as a threat.
This is how it comes up again — it's not "Jane feels traumatized" or "someone confronts the senile sexual predator"; it's "Jane tries to use sexual assault against another woman."
Why Austenland needed to have a sexual assault as a plot device at all is mystifying; why it needed to act as if this sexual assault was harmless is outright offensive.