Film-Forward Review: [BECOMING JANE]

Reviews of Recent Independent, Foreign, & Documentary Films in Theaters and DVD/Home Video

Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen
James McAvoy as Tom Lefroy
Photo: Com Hogan/Miramax Films

Rotten Tomatoes
Showtimes & Tickets
Enter Zip Code:

Directed by: Julian Jarrold.
Produced by: Graham Broadbent, Robert Bernstein & Douglas Rae.
Written by: Sarah Williams & Kevin Hood.
Director of Photography: Eigil Bryld.
Edited by: Emma E. Hickox.
Music by: Adrian Johnston.
Released by: Miramax Films.
Country of Origin: UK/USA. 112 min. Rated PG.
With: Anne Hathaway, James McAvoy, Julie Walters, James Cromwell, Anna Maxwell Martin, Lucy Cohu, Maggie Smith & Laurence Fox.

Becoming Jane affectionately imagines the answer to the second biggest mystery in English literature: how could an 18th-century country spinster write six of the most enduring and beloved novels of romance?

With just a bit more attention to the biographical facts than Shakespeare in Love, which took on the authorship of the Bard’s plays, Sarah Williams and Kevin Hood’s fanciful script blows off the stiff Victorian image of Jane Austen and brings to life a breathing and feeling young woman. Their script enthusiastically elaborates on scholars’ theories from scanty, tantalizing mentions in Austen’s surviving letters to her sister Cassandra about meeting and, shockingly, dancing three times over the 1795 Christmas holidays with a neighbor’s visiting relative, the impecunious Irish law student Thomas Lefroy. The film further spins off on clues biographers have uncovered – the two later could have been in London at the same time. Many a young lady’s romantic dreams have been based on less evidence, as Austen’s novels so charmingly elaborate.

However, Anne Hathaway’s British accent is even weaker than the bland one sported by Austen interpreter Gwyneth Paltrow in Emma, but her coltish looks and barely corseted spirit well capture a bright 20-year-old Austen pushing against the reins of societal strictures in her desire to be a self-supporting “authoress.”

As Thomas, James McAvoy has made a career playing the cheeky outsider bloke (on TV in Shameless and State of Play; and in films, Rory O'Shea Was Here, Starter for 10, and The Last King of Scotland). This is his first chance to prove his romantic mettle parrying ripostes in velvet breeches and puffy shirts while dancing restrained reels. With the emphasis that his Tom Lefroy is no Regency metrosexual, director Julian Jarrold places him smack in the middle of the rowdy masculine world of boxing matches, taverns, and law courts (not that these scenes will help attract men to visit Austenland).

Stimulated by reading Thomas’s recommendation of The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, Jane glimpses this other half through a rousing game of cricket that culminates in the men rushing off to a refreshing skinny dip (that evidently initially garnered a PG-13 rating in the U.S.). While at first the twinkling blue-eyed Tom seems sure to be the model for such rogues as Mr. Wickham in Pride and Prejudice or Mr. Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility, he surprisingly hints towards the man who ended up in real-life as the chief justice of Ireland.

But the film bogs down amidst beautiful period settings as it piles on too many supposed inspirations for characters or elements in Austen’s books (or more specifically, the filmed adaptations), sometimes annoyingly repeating references twice as if flirting with footnoting fans – letters dramatically arriving with bad news, unwelcome marriage proposals, and Jane’s feminist opinions upsetting snobby dinner hosts. The onscreen individuals and situations clearly motivate her to write Pride and Prejudice. Factually, her quill did move apace early in 1796, as seen here, on its first rendering as First Impressions.

While her family delights in Jane's short writings about domestic life, they fail to see any satiric tone, though she protests many times that she adds humor and irony to her descriptions, and her excuse becomes a lame running joke. Because this film does not poke the same fun as in Austen’s novels, it’s considerably less of a comedy, but it also makes the people in her circle more sympathetic (even as the other actors outclass Hathaway).

Her mother (Julie Walters) is no superficial Mrs. Bennet when she has a frank heart-to-heart talk with Jane about her dire financial prospects if she either marries for love or remains a spinster. A fictional meeting with gothic novelist Ann Radcliffe, whose work Austen satirized, lays out the parallel difficulties of being both a wife and writer. And Maggie Smith, as a fictional composite, Lady Gresham, humanizes Judi Dench’s portrayal of Pride’s Lady Catherine de Bourgh by revealing genuine maternal feelings for her shy nephew Mr. Wisley (Laurence Fox, a definite prospect to play a red-headed Weasley in the remaining Harry Potter movies). Nora Lee Mandel
August 3, 2007



Archive of Previous Reviews

Contact us