Becoming Jane (United Kingdom/United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Becoming Jane looks at the life of Jane Austen through the prism of her novels. The film is a semi-fictional biography of the esteemed author; although it incorporates people and events from her life, it also takes liberties with known events. Like Shakespeare in Love, this is intended to be an homage, not a serious reconstruction of the factors underlying the development of an icon. Fans of her books will find familiar elements strewn throughout Becoming Jane. In fact, there are enough similarities between the movie and Pride and Prejudice that one could be forgiven thinking this screenplay is Austen lite.

The story transpires in 1796, when a 20-year old Jane Austen (Anne Hathaway) meets the roguish Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy) - a penniless student of law who is entirely dependent upon his rich uncle (Ian Richardson, in his last film role) for his allowance. Jane and Tom are unsuited to one another so, of course, they fall madly in love. This liaison does not please Jane's mother (Julie Walter), who wants her daughter to marry someone with a fortune. Equally irate about the attachment is Lady Gresham (Maggie Smith), whose dull, humorless nephew intends to make a marriage proposal to Jane. On the other hand, Jane's father (James Cromwell), encourages her to do what suits her soul. Money and the comforts it can bring are desirable, but they are not everything. While Jane pursues a romance with Tom, she indulges her other passion: writing. Pride and Prejudice begins to take shape with Elizabeth Bennett marking the fictional representation of her creator.

Director Julian Jarrold, who has experience adapting literary classics for British television, has elected to present Jane as indistinguishable from her most famous heroine, Elizabeth Bennett. Considering what Becoming Jane is trying to do by depicting how personalities and events in her life might have shaped Austen's literary works, this makes perfect sense. Unfortunately, lead actress Anne Hathaway is not suited to the role. Her Jane doesn't seem like the main character in her own story. Hathaway, who is well suited to modern-day Disney fairy tales like The Princess Diaries, is pretty enough, but she lacks presence. Too often, she blends in with the scenery rather than seizing the camera's attention. One cannot help recall how forcefully Kiera Knightley made the role of Lizzie her own a few years ago in Pride and Prejudice and wonder whether she might not have made a better Jane Austen. James McAvoy (who played the white doctor in The Last King of Scotland) displays more charisma than his co-star but, even so, it's hard to view the Jane/Tom relationship as the kind of grand love affair around which a movie can be constructed.

Judged on a purely historical basis, Becoming Jane is of dubious value, but it is unfair to damn the film based on the liberties it takes with an admittedly unsure factual record. (Many aspects of Austen's life are not known.) Jarrold and his screenwriters, Kevin Hood and Sarah Williams, see Austen as the mother of her characters and seek to present her life as containing chapters that would be expanded into the cores of the novels of her oeuvre. Viewed from that perspective, Becoming Jane succeeds, although Hathaway's inability to give us a strong lead causes the movie to be less appealing than it might otherwise be.

When it comes to providing insight into how Austen wrote her novels, Becoming Jane is threadbare. The movie occasionally shows her with quill in hand but this isn't as much about the craft of writing as it is about the experiences that led to the career. Had Jane and Tom married and lived happily ever after, it's doubtful there would be a Pride and Prejudice. In fact, Jane Austen might simply be one of countless anonymous unpublished women who dabbled in writing as a way to pass the hours when her husband was not around.

At its heart, Becoming Jane is a costume drama romance. The screenplay exhibits a degree of Austen's wit and touches on many of the social issues and constraints that were important to her writing. It's a pleasant enough motion picture, but there's nothing special here. Comparisons with Shakespeare in Love are fair, but this film isn't as well written nor does it feel as fresh. The movie should appeal to its target audience - those familiar with Austen's novels but who are not members of the hard-core group (they will have too many nit-picks to be satisfied) - but it is unlikely to have much in the way of crossover interest. In the end, Becoming Jane can be said to capture the spirit of Austen without the sophistication.

Becoming Jane (United Kingdom/United States, 2007)

Run Time: 2:00
U.S. Release Date: 2007-08-03
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Nothing Objectionable)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1