Director : Julian Jarrold
Screenplay : Kevin Hood & Sarah Williams
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 2007
Stars : Anne Hathaway (Jane Austen), James McAvoy (Tom Lefroy), Julie Walters (Mrs. Austen), James Cromwell (Rev. Austen), Maggie Smith (Lady Gresham), Joe Anderson (Henry Austen), Lucy Cohu (Eliza De Feuillide), Laurence Fox (Mr. Wisley), Ian Richardson (Judge Langlois), Anna Maxwell Martin (Cassandra Austen), Leo Bill (John Warren), Jessica Ashworth (Lucy Lefroy)
Becoming Jane is a historical-romantic flight of fancy that takes a nugget of verifiable history and poses the intriguing question, “What if Jane Austen had lived a Jane Austen novel?” English scholars and literary enthusiasts have long admired Austen's socially astute novels and her delicious play with irony, and screenwriters Kevin Hood and Sarah Williams have essentially taken those ingredients and stirred up a new batch of Brit lit for the screen, but this time with Austen herself as the intelligent and feisty young women caught between her romantic desires and the restrictive social pressures of rural England in the Regency Era.
When the film opens, Jane (Anne Hathaway) is a young woman still living at home with her father, Reverend Austen (James Cromwell), and mother (Julie Walters). Already possessed of the desire to capture the world in prose, she spends her early mornings composing bits of novels and happily striking at the piano when she hits a phrase of absolute perfection. Her older sister, Cassandra (Anna Maxwell Martin), is engaged to marry a respectable young man, and Jane's mother worries that Jane will die a poor old maid because their family is not wealthy enough to support an unmarried woman. As she puts it quite bluntly, “Affection is desirable; money is absolutely indispensable.” Her father is more sympathetic to Jane's plight, but he has his limitations, as well, especially when he preaches in a sermon that women gifted with intelligence and wit should keep it all but hidden.
Jane's insistence that she will be able to live by her pen is considered something just beneath ridiculous, but she believes in herself enough to turn down a marriage proposal by Mr. Wisley (Laurence Fox), the favored nephew of the snobbish local moneybags Lady Gresham (Maggie Smith). It is not that Mr. Wisley is a bad guy, it's just that Jane feels no affection for him, and she is resolute in her belief that no good marriage can exist without affection. Her mother and everyone else seem to take the exact opposite approach: marriage is about financial stability and social respectability, not romance and love.
Jane is much more intrigued by Tom Lefroy (James McAboy), a carousing Irish lawyer from London who is sent to live with his rural relatives by his stern uncle as punishment for his reveling ways (which include boxing, boozing, and consorting with prostitutes). With his fashionable green velvet jacket and air of urban sophistication, Tom fancies himself a chip off the block of his literary hero, Tom Jones. Jane is, of course, immediately repelled by him and his arrogant and selfish ways (one the film's funniest writerly moments is when she composes a long, rambling, critical description of him, then scratches it out muttering, “Too many adjectives”).
Yet, just like Mr. Darcy in Austen's novel Pride & Prejudice, which the film imagines Austen writing in response to her relationship with Tom, the unctuous young interloper begins to grow on her, and soon they recognize in each other kindred spirits. (While history has noted that Austen and Lefroy did meet and have some sort of relationship, there is nothing to suggest that it was the passionate affair imagined in Becoming Jane.) Unfortunately, their relationship is not embraced by others (he is considered tainted by his previous behavior and she is seen as a poor country mouse trying to feed on the elite's cheese), which brings up the question: Will they rebel against social norms in their quest for happiness or fold beneath the heavy weight of social expectations?
The idea that Jane Austen wrote great romances that also doubled as knowing social comedies because she lived them directly is an intriguing idea, and director Julian Jarrold (Kinky Boots) turns Becoming Jane into something more than just a game of literary “what if?,” which is important since there have already been so many Jane Austen movies in recent years. Comparisons to Shakespeare in Love (1998) are inevitable, and even if it doesn't quite rise to that film's delicate balancing of romance, tragedy, and comedy, it still works surprisingly well, especially in the way the screenplay literally drips with well-chosen phrases and clever, airy dialogue that is the very epitome of being erudite without being incomprehensible.
Anne Hathaway always makes for a genuinely appealing protagonist, and she projects a quiet mixture of wily intelligence and real vulnerability. Perhaps because of her role last summer in The Devil Wears Prada (2006) she feels particularly modern in the 19th-century setting, but that subtly works to her advantage. James McAvoy (The Last King of Scotland), with his unconventional looks and Ewan McGregor-ish charm, was also a good choice to play Tom; you can believe that this is the kind of man a woman like Austen would fall for. It's not exactly Pride & Prejudice, but it's an enjoyable appetizer, albeit for a meal that one could argue already has far too many courses.
Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick
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