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When Jane Austen was 20, she met a strutting but covertly sensitive Irish law student named Tom Lefroy. She initially resisted his charms but soon fell madly in love. She later transmuted their doomed romance, sweetened with a fictional happy ending, into her 1813 novel, Pride & Prejudice.
Relax, Janiacs. The makers of Becoming Jane don’t really want you to believe that’s how it happened. Inspired by Jon Spence’s recent biography, Becoming Jane Austen, this modest piece of Regency-period fluff exists in part to have some fun with the writer’s life story, the details of which are tantalizingly vague. Mostly, though, the movie was made because, though Austen’s six novels have all been adapted for film or upscale TV—most of them more than once—there are still classy ingénues, such as this film’s Anne Hathaway, in search of ladylike, British-accented period pieces. And Dickens, Trollope, or even George Eliot just don’t flatter their sensibilities the way Austen does.
A step forward from 2005’s labored Kinky Boots, director Julian Jarrold’s previous effort, Becoming Jane opens with vistas of the English countryside—
actually shot in Ireland—intercut with glimpses of hand, ink, and paper. Jane (Hathaway) is a writer, you see, and her acquaintance with Tom (The Last King of Scotland’s James McAvoy) will unlock her gifts. The bickering begins when Tom describes a poem Jane reads aloud as “juvenile self-regard,” but their relationship warms when he recommends that she read such grown-up novels as Tom Jones. Again, sticklers: Though Austen did know a Tom Lefroy, there’s no evidence that anything like this actually sparked her writing. Still, Tom and Jane’s supposed literary exchanges aren’t half so absurd as the scene in which the irrepressible Jane insists on playing cricket. Not only does she hit a long one, but she celebrates by hugging a casual male acquaintance she doesn’t even like. Quite the modern girl—so modern, in fact, that her near-surrender to early-18th-century notions of propriety doesn’t make sense.
The casual male acquaintance Jane doesn’t even like is Mr. Wisley (Laurence Fox), her dreary rich suitor and the nephew of the dreadful Lady Gresham (Maggie Smith at her most scarily imperious). Jane’s choice between the competing bids of Wisley and Lefroy should be familiar: It’s the same dilemma Keira Knightley faced two years ago in the latest big-screen version of Pride & Prejudice. For much of its running time, Becoming Jane and its predecessor are uncomfortably similar, and most of the players in this movie, including Julie Walters and James Cromwell as Jane’s parents, might just as easily have been in that one. The notion that real-life romance could have inspired famed works of literature was handled with considerable wit in Shakespeare in Love, but then that film was given a major rewrite by Tom Stoppard, who knows both wit and Shakespeare. Sarah Williams and Kevin Hood, who scripted Becoming Jane, just want another crack at Pride’s much-filmed plot.
For those who can stomach its premise, the movie is vivacious, well-constructed, and nicely performed, if conceptually thin. Hathaway becomes Jane Austen as persuasively as the script allows, even if she hasn’t internalized her English accent in the manner of Gwyneth Paltrow, who began her conversion into an honorary Brit in the 1996 adaptation of Austen’s Emma. Part of a boomlet of fictionalized artist biopics—
others include Goya’s Ghosts and the upcoming Molière—the film should amuse Austen or costume-picture fans looking for something just a tiny bit new but overwhelmingly familiar. At the risk of shocking Austen purists, however, Becoming Jane might have been more than a minor entertainment if it had taken more liberties with the sainted Jane.