Becoming Jane (2007): Writer Jane Austen as Young Woman, Starring Anne Hathaway and James McAvoy

The paradigm of Masterpiece Theatre is semi-successfully applied to Becoming Jane, a film that mixes fact and fiction in trying to illuminate the kind of woman the writer Jane Austen was in her youth.
Centering on Austen’s early years, “Becoming Jane” is not really a full-fledged biopicture; Austen purists might be upset by the liberties of the text with the novelist’s real background and personality.

End result is an intelligent, mildly enjoyable, if not exciting film, the sort of which only the Brits make any more. “Becoming Jane” represents a step in the right direction for the talents behind and in front the camera. Director Julian Jarrold, who previously made the disappointing “Kinky Boots,” shows that he’s capable of handling better material, even if his approach is too literary.

But the film’s real revelation is Anne Hathaway, as the young Jane Austen, and not just because of the British accent she effectively essays. More beautiful and charming than the real Austen was, Hathaway conveys in equal measure the determination of a femme to become a professional writer at a time when sexual codes were rigid, as well as the emotional vulnerability of a youngster who had just experienced the first taste of romantic love.

This is Hathaway’s most emotionally mature and in-depth performance to date. A child star who impressed with her perkiness in the “Princess Diaries” movies, Hathaway (who looks a bit like a tall Natalie Wood) was the nominal lead in the comedy hit “The Devil Wears Prada,” where she came across as pale and shallow vis-a-vis the two other women, Meryl Streep and Emily Blunt, both of whom shone. It’s therefore a pleasure to report that in “Becoming Jane,” Hathaway is center stage, honorably holding the film on her beautiful shoulders.

This being a prestige British production, made for upscale viewers, it’s cast with grand dames like Maggie Smith and Julie Walters, and other reliable pros, such as Aussie James Cromwell (last seen in Frears’ Oscar-nominated “The Queen”).

The picture’s first reel is weak and diffuse, perhaps a reflection of Jarrold’s wish to display all these powerhouse players, who, unfortunately, get brief scenes or just a few one-liners. This treatment continues throughout the film, thus wasting the talents of a fantastic supporting cast.

It might sound a dubious compliment to say that “Becoming Jane” is a better picture about a femme author than the clumsy “Miss Potter,” about the writer Beatrix Potter, from which all you remember is Rene Zellweger’s heavy accent and eccentric mannerisms. “Becoming Jane” steers clear of such trepidations, once it gets beyond the first act.

An early sequence, in which the author’s father Reverend Mr. Henry (Cromwell) and mother (Julie Walters) are in bed, is fake and signals alarm. When Mom complains that there has never been “perfection” in the bed department, the Reverend goes down on her for oral sex. In the next scene, the Reverend is seen preaching enthusiastically, presumably after having a good night sleep.

Jane’s parents want her to marry a wealthy husband, as is the fashion in late nineteenth-century England. However, Jane, already a stubborn woman with her own ideas, rejects Mr. Wisley, Laurence Fox), the nephew of wealthy Lady Gresham (Maggie Smith), instead falling for the charming Irish rogue Tom Lefroy.

While Jane’s elder sister Cassandra (Anna Maxwell Martin) is engaged, Jane resists being paired off with the bland Wisley. “His fortune will not buy me,” says Jane, to which her pragmatic mom retorts, “Affection is desirable, but money is absolutely indispensable!”

As co-written by Sarah Williams and Kevin Hood, the center of the film depicts Austen’s real-life flirting with Irish lawyer Tom Lefroy (Scottish actor James McAvoy in good shape), which despite obstacles of class and position, blossoms into a secret romance, leading to a proposal and even marriage plans. Never mind that Jane and Tom’s initial meeting, like all first encounters in romantic comedies, is too cute. The arrogant metropolitan sneers at Jane’s country ways and ingenuous prose, only to later fall for her head over heels.

The notion of Jane Austen as a woman defined by broken heart and frustrated love may be too vulgar and routine for the writers’ loyal readers, and the way the story builds on this romantic angle is ultimately unconvincing, even if the intent is honorable.

The picture’s main problem is its boring, uninspired screenplay. If memory serves, half of the story is set in the forest, where the characters encounter each other, sometimes by design and sometimes by accident, pacing back and forth among the trees.

Expectedly, several obstacles stand in the way of Tom and Jane’s happiness. For starters, Tom is penniless and is in danger of being cut off by his wealthy relatives (Ian Richardson), thanks to his penchant for booze and bare-knuckle fighting.

Despite the fictionalized elements, the film offers some pleasures in its witty references to Austen’s as-yet-unwritten novels and occasionally sparkling dialogue. In sections, “Becoming Jane” unfolds as a blueprint for Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” which has been transferred a number of times to the screen, both the small and big one, most recently in 2005 with the terrific, Oscar-nominated Keira Knightley. Like the bristling emotional dynamics between Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy in that book, Jane and Tom engage in a battle of wits; Tom relishes Jane’s blushes with sexual innuendos, and so on.

Jarrold and his screenwriters carry to an extreme the contrast between Jane’s repressed passion and Lefroy’s more loose cannon conduct, which sporadically leavens the proceedings. Holding that Jane needs to widen her horizons, Tom gives her a copy of “Tom Jones” to read and introduces her to his favorite sport, bare-knuckle boxing. But then, as soon as circumstances contrive to keep Jane and Tom apart, “Becoming Jane” becomes a routine melodrama.

The film suffers from other problems: Pacing in the second half is sluggish, and the couple’s decision to elope doesn’t ring true. Moreover, there is little concern for the specific tribulations Jane Austen faced as a female writer in Regency society.

“Becoming Jane” might have been a better picture if it were a more conventional (even chronological) biopic, or an outright literary fantasy that reimagines with wit and verve the various inspirations for Austen’s future brilliant career.

“Becoming Jane” was shot in rural Ireland, standing in for Hampshire, and Dublin, in lieu of London. However, Eigil Bryld’s cinematography, like the film’s other technical aspects, is uneven. Some scenes are clearly and beautiful shot, while others are downright dreary with their poor lighting, which may be a function of the budget and/or rushed production.

“Becoming Jane” opened in the U.K. in early March, and Miramax will open the movie in the U.S. in August in a platform release.

Oscar Alert

The distinguished actor Ian Richardson here gives his last performance, as Judge Langlois, Tom’s stern and rigid uncle-employer.

Credits

Running Time: 120 minutes

Miramax release of a Miramax Films, HanWay Films, U.K. Film Council, Irish Film Board presentation, in association with 2Entertain and BBC Films, of an Ecosse Films production, in association with Blueprint Pictures, Scion Films, Octagon Films.
Directed by Julian Jarrold.
Screenplay, Sarah Williams, Kevin Hood.
Produced by Graham Broadbent, Robert Bernstein, Douglas Rae.
Executive producers, Nicole Finnan, Jeff Abberley, Julia Blackman, Tim Haslam.
Co-producers, James Flynn, Morgan O’Sullivan, James Saynor.
Cinematography, Eigil Bryld.
Editing, Emma E. Hickox.
Music, Adrian Johnston.
Production Design, Eve Stewart.
Art Direction, David McHenry,
Set Decoration, Johnny Byrne.
Costume Design, Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh.

Cast

  1. Jane Austen (Anne Hathaway)
    Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy)
    Mrs. Austen (Julie Walters)
    Rev. Austen (James Cromwell)
    Lady Gresham (Maggie Smith)
    Henry Austen (Joe Anderson)
    Eliza De Feuillide (Lucy Cohu)
    Mr. Wisley (Laurence Fox)
    Judge Langlois (Ian Richardson)
    Cassandra Austen (Anna Maxwell Martin)
    John Warren (Leo Bill)
    Lucy Lefroy (Jessica Ashworth)
    Mr. Lefroy (Michael James Ford)
    Robert Fowle (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor)
    Mrs. Radcliffe (Helen McCrory)