Regency-period romance transforms Jane Austen into a fictional lovebird
By Devin D. O’Leary
Directed by Julian Jarrold
Cast: Anne Hathaway, James McAvoy, James Cromwell, Julie Walters, Maggie Smith
Becoming Jane is a speculative biopic that imagines a young, pre-fame Jane Austen as just another highbrow chick flick heroine mooning over the forbidden love of a hunky Irish lad. While it contains all the usual trappings necessary for a romantic costume drama (provincial English manor homes, fancy balls, horse-drawn carriages and lots of long walks in the countryside), the film’s greatest handicap is that it wasn’t actually written by Austen.
Doe-eyed American actress Anne Hathaway (Brokeback Mountain, The Devil Wears Prada) plays Jane, the progressive young daughter of a poor country preacher and his wife (James Cromwell and Julie Walters, classing up the joint a bit). We are introduced to Austen round about the closing years of the 18th century. Our gal Jane is the imaginative type, scrawling out stories of pithy social observation and dreaming of the day when she can become a successful novelist. Naturally, Jane’s parents do not approve of this unwomanly career and wish her to be married off to some well-to-do young man post haste. (In reality, Jane’s family was made up of supportive, creative types who encouraged her to write.)
One day, Jane bumps into Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy from The Last King of Scotland), an up-and-coming London lawyer who has been exiled to the countryside for the summer by his judicious uncle. Tom is the exact opposite of Jane. He’s a drinking, womanizing, fist-fighting cad who doesn’t care a whit about literature. The two take an immediate dislike to one another. This is, of course, screenwriting shorthand for “they are madly in love.” Thanks to scripters Kevin Hood and Sarah Williams (a pair of British TV writers), Tom and Jane spend the rest of the movie squabbling like they’re in a rerun of “Moonlighting” (fall ’86 season, I’d say). ... Yes, the life of one of English literature’s most celebrated novelists has been reduced to a shopworn tale of “opposites attract.”
In January of 1796, Jane Austen did meet and possibly flirt with a man named Tom Lefroy, who later became Lord High Justice of Ireland. The story of Becoming Jane, however, is complete confabulation. Austen never married Lefroy—or anyone for that matter—and seemed to have virtually no emotional/sexual inclinations in her short life. That’s not exactly a great basis for a romantic drama, but it hasn’t deterred the filmmakers.
Essentially, the film boils all of Austen’s various pen-and-ink plots down to their cliché essence and crams them into a single overly familiar narrative. Will Jane marry handsome Tom Lefroy (whom she loves) or boobish Laurence Fox (who’s got simply loads of inheritance money)? If you’ve read Sense and Sensibility (and if you’re interested in a biopic about Jane Austen, it’s reasonable to assume you have), then you’ve heard it all before.
So, to be clear: This film speculates that Jane Austen was inspired to write all her books by living through circumstances exactly like them. How insightful. That’s a like imaging Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet not because he was a great writer, but because he had just committing suicide over a swoony Italian girl he loved against the wishes of their feuding family clans. (At least Shakespeare in Love had a bit more imagination than that.)
As fictional biopics go, Becoming Jane is far too literal-minded (as opposed to literary minded). On the other hand, it could be argued that the film is perfectly passable as a Regency-period romance. True, those tempted to actually buy a ticket won’t walk out of the theater complaining all that vociferously. The dresses look pretty, the men are handsome and there’s plenty of opportunity to cry at the end. Given the subject matter, though, the film is a poor cousin to just about any cinematic adaptation of Ms. Austen’s fictional flights of fancy. Honestly, Austenites, you’re better off staying home with your Pride and Prejudice.
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