WFTB Score: 8/20
The plot: Aspiring authoress Jane Austen writes about love but has little experience of it herself, that is until loose-living lawyer Tom Lefroy takes her attention and captures her heart. But, as someone else once wrote, the course of true love never did run smooth: Jane gets a proposal from an awkward suitor with excellent financial prospects, leading her mother to almost demand she marry him; and Lefroy cannot assume his uncle will give his blessing to the relationship. With these obstacles, will Miss Austen be able to create her own happy ever after?
Her novels are known and loved the world over, with several of them – Emma, Pride and Prejudice, and Sense and Sensibility – recognised as all-time classics of English literature. That said, the author herself is a mystery to the vast majority of the population, myself included; so Julian Jarrold’s Becoming Jane is potentially a fascinating glimpse of an unknown world.
Anne Hathaway plays Austen, a young, playful writer living with her fairly impoverished parents (Julie Walters and James Cromwell) and other family members in Hampshire. The only romance in her quiet life appears to be interest from Mr Wisley (Laurence Fox), a man who cannot dance and can barely speak, but stands to inherit a good fortune from the terrifying Lady Gresham (Maggie Smith), Catherine de Bourgh in all but name.
When Jane’s brother Henry brings home his drinking and fighting partner Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy), the dashing young lawyer stirs up emotions that Austen had previously written about but never experienced. Initially, Jane and Tom can only express their disdain for each other to their friends, but through a series of meetings and sharp discussions, they face up to a strong and undeniable attraction. It may be a doomed love, however: Jane’s mother pushes her to accept Wisley’s marriage proposal as a way of saving the family, a plight made ever more urgent by sister Cassandra’s (Anna Maxwell Martin) return following the death of her beloved fiancé; and Tom has to rely on the consent of a disapproving uncle, Judge Langlois (Ian Richardson), not the type to warm to a precocious, independent-minded authoress. Whether or not Jane and Tom can be together depends on their willingness to seek their own happiness at the expense of their reputations and the financial security of their dependents.
Given that Austen’s life was (by all accounts) not the most sensational, I don’t think that the filmmakers behind Becoming Jane could have taken any other approach to the story than the one they have, namely to treat Austen like a heroine from her own novels and give her a similar story arc to Lizzie Bennett or Emma Woodhouse. And to an extent this is successful, since the period details are all very handsome and everyone behaves as you might expect Austen characters to, many of them coming across as prototypic Wickhams, Darcys and so on. But the problems with this approach are various: for one thing, in order to create this dramatic story the film has to invent people (such as Lady Gresham) and situations that never happened, causing Austen purists to scoff and denying the rest of us a true insight into who the author truly was (the novels themselves, coming later in Austen’s life, are barely touched upon). The film would certainly come under the category ‘re-imagining’ rather than biopic, which (to be fair) the film never claims to be – though it hardly ‘fesses up to its fantasies, either.
The other problem is that even with the facts altered to suit the tale, the structure of the film is still flawed. It is good to see Jane passionate and granted a bit of romantic happiness, and quite exciting to think she might have consented to a reckless elopement; but having gone that far, the film has her turning back on a technicality when she discovers how much Tom’s family depends on his income. The conclusion to the story (suddenly jumping forward twenty-odd years) feels wrong too, self-consciously like a modern romance-that-couldn’t-be film. Then there are the turgid subplots: Henry’s romance with Jane’s flirty French companion Eliza (Lucy Cohu) isn’t nearly as interesting as the film thinks it is, and Cassandra’s fiancé is barely in the film long enough for us to mourn his passing.
On a technical level, the film has it’s good and bad points. As I say, Regency England looks authentic and though they might lack veracity as historical characters, there’s nothing wrong with Tom and Jane’s chemistry. Nobody in the cast is poor (it has its critics, but I wasn’t offended by Hathaway’s English accent*), though several – most notably Julie Walters – are underused, given their appreciable talents. The film does make a few strange stylistic choices though, neither of which added much to the experience: on several occasions, the picture took a short time to focus, a minor irritation. More jarringly, on several occasions Jarrold (or his editor) curtails scenes (such as when Austen is seeking out company at a ball) by fading in the same scene a few seconds later; this is fine, but the fade-ins pile in on each other quickly and the whole picture becomes unpleasantly confused. It’s an editing trick that, like much about the movie, doesn’t quite have the desired effect.
Don’t get me wrong, though. Becoming Jane is not without charm and, as an alternative to an umpteenth remake of Pride and Prejudice, the story is a welcome change. But if you compare it to the real thing – Austen’s works, that is, not her life – the film can’t do either justice. Hathaway is a very becoming Jane: she’s just not a very convincing Austen.
NOTES: That said, the line ‘It was you who wrote the judge’ is an unforgivable American-Englishism. How did that slip by unnoticed?