Becoming Jane sounded like a great idea. A biography of Jane Austen told in the style of one of her books, with Anne Hathaway cast as the young author. The actress was an excellent choice. Her command of the language, her intelligence, and doe-eyed beauty would be perfectly suited for the etiquette, clever outbursts, and period costumes such a role would surely require. In that sense, thankfully, the filmmakers did not fail, as Hathaway makes good on our expectations. The script, unfortunately, does not, somehow forgetting that Austen was actually a real person. Instead, TV writers Kevin Hood and Sarah Williams and Kinky Boots director Julian Jarrold truss up their heroine so tight, she all but disappears, relying instead on audience foreknowledge of Pride & Prejudice and Sense & Sensibility to provide any sort of connection with the movie at all.
Writers giving short shrift to a fellow writer in her own story. Surely Austen herself would enjoy the irony.
The set-up for the story is that young Jane is next in line amongst her sisters to be married. With elder Cassandra (Anna Maxwell Martin, Bleak House) engaged to a young priest who has been under tutelage to the girls' father (James Cromwell, The Queen), it's up to Jane to pick a proper suitor to settle down with. Her mother (Julie Walters, a.k.a. Mrs. Weaseley in the Harry Potter movies) feels that it's of particular import that Jane marry into money, as the family barely survives on what Mr. Austen makes at their local parish. Resident money maven Lady Gresham (Dame Maggie Smith) has a nephew she's ready to link to the rebellious girl, but poor Wisley (Laurence Fox) is like Lurch in a proper dressing coat, lumbering in both speech and movement.
Naturally, Jane can't marry Wisley, because she must marry for love, a principle her father has instilled in her. Like a heroine in her novels, she has been encouraged to dream, indulged in her early morning scribblings, and she's not willing to give in easily. Particularly when there are outsiders like the ghastly Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy, Starter For Ten) to secretly swoon over while outwardly declaring him detestable. Lefroy likes to drink, carouse, and even do some bare-chested boxing, and he's been exiled to the country in a kind of Victorian version of rehab. He must get his gadabout ways out of his system!
McAvoy is excellent in the role. He plays smug very well. I despised his character in The Last King of Scotland for being so self-enamored, and I couldn't stand Lefroy as he swaggered through the first part of Becoming Jane. Yet, by the midway mark in the film, as Lefroy's harsh attitudes began to melt away to reveal the dreamy, progressive lover underneath...well, it was like I was Elizabeth Bennet and he Mr. Darcy. Go to him, Jane, go!
All of the men in this movie are pretty well drawn, actually. Mr. Austen is gentle and loving, Jane's brother Henry (Joe Anderson, Across the Universe) is a kind of sweet cad, and the pretty, speckled snake in the grass John (Leo Bill, Kinky Boots) is one of those lie-in-wait villains that, when he reveals himself, you can't help but think, "Of course! The stuttering pious one is behind it!" Even Wisley is more than a moneyed stand-in for Frankenstein's monster. He harbors an interior life that comes out in various comments that Jane is heartbreakingly insensitive to.
Which is the problem. This is Jane Austen we're talking about. If Becoming Jane is intended to show the author as the fountain for her own characters, then shouldn't we have some expectation that eventually there will be some level of comeuppance for Jane, where she must acknowledge that she's wrong? For someone who was so insightful to the human character, how can she miss a man with a poet's soul, telling her that affection, like flowers, can be shy to bloom?
It's hard to see why three separate men are so eager to be the first to get inside the girl's bodice, because there's really nothing going on with Jane at all. Anne Hathaway is eager to give it a try. She performs the role with a completeness of character that suggests she knows what's going on with Jane, and she's just waiting for the guys at the helm to give her an opportunity to reveal it. Yet, it never comes. For a supposedly clever, progressive girl who is willing to buck the system in service of her heart and her dreams, she is surprisingly passive. There are few outbursts of feeling, and no real expression of wit or ideas. Becoming Jane is full of her singing the praises of manners and propriety, but absent of any indication that she sees any greater insight into the social mores she is beholden to. We aren't even privy to any of her writing. Whether she's reading it out loud or Jarrold allows us to peek over her shoulder, he only gives us snatches of text, random buzzwords that might tickle our Austen fancies, but none of the pretty prose itself.
In short, this Jane Austen is a dud, and it makes no sense that everyone is so heated up over her. This infects the entire movie, which turns out to be surprisingly, almost relentlessly, downbeat in its final act. Don't let Anne Hathaway's lovely smile on the poster fool you. Becoming Jane is not a happy, tasty romance. It's actually trying to be something else. As you get to the end, you'll realize the filmmakers are struggling to make an ironic comment on how much Jane Austen's life did not turn out like it would in one of her novels. (That scene with the other writer, Mrs. Radcliffe? Foreshadowing!) This would have been all well and good, but there is nothing of any value to lean the irony against. Somewhere along the way they forgot that Jane Austen's hopes and dreams, her desire to be Elizabeth Bennet or Marianne Dashwood, had to actually come to life before all hope could be dashed on the rocks.
We actually have to care before the bitterness can sting.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with JoŽlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.