In which we review (almost) every film adapted from or inspired by the works of Jane Austen.
Director: Julian Jarrold
Cast: Anne Hathaway, James McAvoy, Julie Walters
Run Time: 2 hours
MPAA Rating: PG
If you took the opportunity to read my review for the dutiful downer Miss Austen Regrets, you may have noticed the many comments sniping at literary biopic motion pictures for generally being intolerably stupid. In truth that was largely aimed at Shakespeare in Love. I hadn't seen Becoming Jane since high school so I was willing to assume that my opinion formed at that time would hold no weight, because not only have I come a long way in my approach to analyzing the worth of cinema, I understand infinitely more about Austen and the breadth of her work than I did at the time. Astonishingly, I think I have now become the first person in human history to agree with an opinion I held in high school.
Hold onto your hats, folks.
Becoming Jane is the story of, astonishingly, a young Jane Austen (Anne Hathaway). She is one of those modern women plunked down in the past that we like to position as protagonists in historical dramas, rebelling against gender boundaries and holding fast to her belief that she can contribute more to the world as an author than as some rich man's wife. There is indeed a rich man around to test that theory, the nephew of local fancypants Lady Gresham (Maggie Smith), who she refuses despite the encouragement of her mom (Julie Walters) and dad (James Cromwell). Her heart belongs to another, the uncouth boxer and judge's nephew Tom LeFroy (James McAvoy), even though - would you believe it - she at first finds him prideful and perhaps develops a bit of a prejudice against him.
The course of true love never did run smooth, and it's famous fact that Jane Austen died without ever marrying, but just maybe this youthful romance will inspire her to write six of the most famous books about love of all time.
Starting with Pride & Prejudice, because this movie spits in the face of her publishing history.
Yes, this is one of those incredibly crass movies that posits that all an author has to do to create a literary masterwork is to write down the exact events that are happening in their lives and change the names. So even though it's based on her actual life (extremely loosely, I might have mentioned), we should approach this as an adaptation of one of her novels because it literally is, all the way down to the Lady Catherine de Bourgh of it all.
The core of a Jane Austen novel is the effortless blending of biting satirical observations of the landed gentry with earnest, effective romantic drama. Becoming Jane has neither. As an evocation of Austen's comic gift, Miss Austen Regrets is leaps and bounds ahead of Becoming Jane - and that movie saw fit to have their Jane just wander around quoting all of the best lines of dialogue she had already written. The Austen of Becoming Jane is certainly headstrong and willing to defend the use of irony in her writing, but she almost never indulges herself in it, preferring to hide in corners and cry wherever possible.
And as a romance, Becoming Jane leans entirely on our desire to see the pretty white people make out. They put almost no work into depicting why LeFroy and Austen might actually be interested in one another, they just kind of quietly transition from hate to love offscreen. And sure, they are an aesthetically pleasing couple, but in action it's a little hard to take Hathaway's barely-there British accent too seriously.
Those lips weren't made for accents, they were made for smooching!
I probably shouldn't have expected a multi-faceted study of domestic life and a lady's perspective on romance from a movie that doesn't see fit to have its female lead character speak a significant line of dialogue until about fifteen minutes in, so I guess that's what I get.
Taken solely as a historical costume drama, Becoming Jane is wholly acceptable, with plenty of beautiful compositions of the bucolic British countryside blooming with a timeless elegance. Although if we're speaking literally, the costumes themselves aren't quite that interesting, damn those prim Regency-era frocks. The only exceptions to the rule of "plain earth tones, let's not make a fuss" are Tom LeFroy's elegant coats and Lady Gresham's voluminous outfits that are ready-made for drag performances.
I've now seen Becoming Jane twice in my life and I have absolutely no desire to ever see it a third. This coming from someone who's halfway through a volume of Jane Austen's letters to her sister Cassandra (also a character in the movie, but so minor as to not actually deserve a mention), which are mostly just descriptions of travel and who was at what balls.
TL;DR: Becoming Jane is a disappointing effort at capturing the wit and wisdom of one of history's greatest authors.
Word Count: 846