Becoming Jane is frisky take on Austen's life
Starring Anne Hathaway and James McAvoy. Rated PG. Opens Friday, August 3, at the Park Theatre
Life imitates art imitating life in Becoming Jane, a sporadically convincing if ultimately satisfying take on the early adulthood of Jane Austen. The lovingly crafted British film unashamedly embroiders the historical record to push the young writer's life closer to events depicted in her breakthrough novel, Pride and Prejudice. The effect is sufficiently salutary to justify any offence it makes against propriety.
The appearance of things, as in Austen's highly influential writing, is of paramount importance to this all-observing Jane, played with surprising subtlety and a solid Anglo accent by Anne Hathaway who is not secretly married to that talented writer from Stratford-upon-Avon. There's more than a hint, though, of Shakespeare in Love, especially early on, when director Julian Jarrold (Kinky Boots) uses a shaky cam to add "energy" to late 18th-century life and deigns to show us just how frisky Mr. and Mrs. Austen (James Cromwell and Julie Walters) could be in bed.
Jane cutely meets her own personal Mr. Darcy in the form of Irish barrister Tom Lefroy (The Last King of Scotland's James McAvoy), with whom she had some kind of real-life flirtation, at least of the epistolary kind. As broadened by screenwriters Sarah Williams and Kevin Hood, both Brit TV veterans, the tale centres on our quill-wagging heroine's corseted situation, caught between the unwanted attentions of a shallow young bore (Laurence Fox) and the initial hostility of Lefroy, who affronts her by criticizing her writing for displaying "an excess of juvenile self-regard". Ouch!
This Jane Austen is a fast learner, however, and things get increasingly more interesting as the story moves along, introducing a variety of side characters to explore the interstices of class and manners in Georgian England (Ireland stands in for rural Hampshire). All the actors are fine, and there is especially nuanced work from Maggie Smith as a supercilious noblewoman; she's a horrific snob, but you can tell she thinks it would make her appear ill-bred to be too openly condescending. (When told that Miss Austen likes to write, she whispers, "Can anything be done about it?"). Just as good is Ian Richardson as Lefroy's domineering uncle, a powerful judge who believes the sole purpose of law is to enforce property rights.
No one knows how firmly the real writer held onto her virtue, and the film doesn't quite venture into that territory. But by equating youthful passion with creative expression lust with literature, if you will the badly titled movie manages to say some fresh, honest, and witty things about what drives people to want to make art.