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Lost In Austen
cast: Jemima Rooper, Elliot Cowan, Hugh Bonneville, Alex Kingston, and Lindsay Duncan

director: Dan Zeff

178 minutes (12) 2008
widescreen ratio 1.78:1
ITV DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Ian Sales
In Life On Mars, present-day DCI Sam Tyler finds himself back in 1973. In Lost In Austen, disenchanted Amanda Price (Jemima Rooper) finds herself back in Regency England. But it's a purely fictional Regency England: that of Jane Austen's Pride And Prejudice. Unlike the earlier time-travelling police series, Lost In Austen wears its postmodern sensibilities in plain view.

Amanda is having a night in, curled up with her favourite book, when she hears a noise from the bathroom. She goes to investigate... and finds a strange woman in there. Who proves to be Elizabeth Bennet (Gemma Arterton) from the very book Amanda was reading. There is, it seems, a door in the bathroom, which normally gives access to the plumbing, but actually gives entry to an upper floor of the Bennet residence back in the early 19th century. The two swap places, and so Amanda finds herself pitched straight into the plot of Pride And Prejudice.

At first, Amanda decides to play Elizabeth's role in the book and organise matters so they progress as they do in the novel. So she attempts to match-make between Jane (Morven Christie) and Bingley (Tom Mison). But she also tries to prevent Lydia (Perdita Weeks) from eloping with Wickham (Tom Riley). And then there's Darcy (Elliot Cowan), who is even more of humourless prig than his fictional counterpart. Unfortunately, Amanda is not Elizabeth and it all goes horribly wrong. Of course, much of the fun in this will be lost on a viewer who doesn't know the book (or previous film and television adaptations). Wickham is a case in point. In the original book, he's a 'bad sort', and one of the story's sadder points is Lydia's elopement with him. However, in Lost In Austen he turns out to be a thoroughly decent chap and, for reasons I couldn't quite fathom, an alternative for Amanda's affections.

Unfortunately, knowing the book also on occasion works against Lost In Austen. Amanda fails to achieve the almost-happy endings for some which Elizabeth managed - her best friend, Charlotte (Michelle Duncan) ending up with the despicable Mr Collins (Guy Henry), for instance. And there's the cock-up she makes of trying to push Jane at Bingley. All the same, you expect everything to turn out right in the end. But it doesn't. And never really seems likely to. Whatever suspense there is in Lost In Austen seems locked up in the 'will they / won't they' relationship between Amanda and Darcy. Which is, of course, pretty much suspense-free. This is Austen. The protagonist has to fall in love with Darcy. And vice versa.

Admittedly, Amanda's role in the plot is still up for grabs - how deeply should she play Elizabeth's role? Should she actually be matchmaking the original matchmaker? Which results in probably two of the most interesting scenes in the series. First, Amanda has 'a strange postmodern moment' and gets Darcy to wade out into the ornamental lake - so that's Pride And Prejudice by way of the BBC adaptation... on ITV. And second, Amanda returns to present-day London to persuade a suspiciously well-acclimatised Elizabeth to return, only to be followed by a befuddled Darcy.

Lost In Austen is many things, foremost among them is that it's very entertaining. It's both a gentle comedy of culture clashes, and an extended in-joke on Austen's novel. It's also a commentary of sorts on our own world - there's an amusing scene, for example, when Amanda undresses in front of Kitty Bennet (Florence Hoath) and has to explain in embarrassment, "It's called a 'landing strip'." What it is certainly not is any sort of affront to, or perversion of, Austen's classic.

Lost In Austen is presented as two discs, with two 45-minute episodes on each. The hour-long making-of featurette on the second disc is a typical example of its type - short interviews on location with the cast, behind-the-scenes footage, and an avuncular voiceover telling you how to respond to the programme... Be warned: some scenes which were broadcast are not on the DVD for copyright reasons - particularly the scene where Amanda sings Petula Clark's Downtown to Darcy and the Bingleys.

Obviously, Lost In Austen is going to appeal to fans of the book more than those unfamiliar with it - well, those fans who weren't suffering apoplectic fits from ITV daring to alter their beloved Pride And Prejudice. I'll admit I like the book. But Lost In Austen also had other attractive qualities - a postmodern knowingness (like Life On Mars), its comedy is affectionate, and it's put together well, with an excellent cast, top-notch locations, and a witty script. It's thoroughly enjoyable, and recommended.

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