2007Director: Julian Jarrold
Cast: James Cromwell, Anne Hathaway, James McAvoy
arly on in Becoming Jane, a new biopic that focuses on Jane Austen’s young adult life, Jane’s mother (played by Julie Walters, with her traditional brio) chides her daughter’s notions of love, saying “you know our situation!” Indeed, and so does the audience. After the surprising success of Joe Wright’s 2005 adaptation of Pride & Prejudice, Austen is back en vogue, and this film presents an imagined account of young Jane’s (Anne Hathaway) alleged flirtation with a young Irish lawyer called Thomas Lefroy (James McAvoy). Sadly, as well-intentioned as much of Becoming Jane is, it comes across as a pale imitation of Austen, a watered-down attempt at one of her witty romances.
I had assumed Becoming Jane’s biggest flaw would be its star, considering the gaucheness of casting an American as such an English icon. However, outside of a somewhat dodgy accent, Hathaway acquits herself well enough. Here, Jane Austen is slightly mousier than her fictional heroines, but no less prone to willful acts of independence, like shooting ironic quips at the dreamy yet haughty man-about-town Lefroy, or declining offers of marriage from a suitor far richer than her on the grounds of love. Better still is hot young thing McAvoy, who skillfully fleshes out the dastardly appeal of the firebrand Lefroy, somewhat more of a bad boy than the male leads of Austen’s novels (he admires Fielding’s Tom Jones, is clearly sexually active himself, and frequently indulges in bare-knuckle boxing).
Aside from the scandalous Lefroy, there are many derivative similarities to Austen’s works here, particularly Pride & Prejudice (which Austen is shown working on throughout the film). Take Julie Walters and James Cromwell as Jane’s parents, trying respectively to persuade and dissuade her from marrying for money—an obvious echo of the Bennets in P&P;, especially as played by Brenda Blethyn and Donald Sutherland in the 2005 film. Even more obviously, in lieu of Judi Dench (who played the imperious Lady Catherine in P&P;), we get another Dame (Maggie Smith) as the haughty Lady Gresham, a similarly class-obsessed matriarch obsessively guarding her nephew’s fortune.
Since the screenplay lacks the gift of Austen’s dialogue, none of these situations manage to capture one’s attention. However, the same cannot quite be said of the romance at the heart of the plot, between Austen and Lefroy. At first, their courtship is pretty standard: girl meets boy, girl thinks boy is pretentious and rude, girl and boy fall in love. So far, so Elizabeth & Darcy. But the hard facts of Austen’s real life cannot be toyed with too much (she died having never married, and while Lefroy is a real person that she encountered, the affair depicted here is likely apocryphal), and the film takes a much more melancholy turn in the second of its two bloated hours, as Jane and her sister Cassandra (Anna Maxwell Martin, of the BBC Bleak House adaptation), cannot be guaranteed the happy ending Austen’s heroines always receive.
Director Julian Jarrold (who previously helmed Brit comedy Kinky Boots) manages the tonal shift well enough, but the formulaic plot still could have benefited from considerable compression. In the pairing of Jane and Lefroy, there’s a fragment of a decent romantic drama, but Becoming Jane is too bogged down by its cartoonish supporting characters and plot machinations, ersatz attempts at replicating the skill of its subject. As date movies go, it’s no Pride & Prejudice.
Becoming Jane is currently playing in wide release in the UK. It is set to be released in August in the United States.
By: David Sims
Published on: 2007-03-14