Reading the titles of all six of Jane Austen's novels is like reading a list of literature's greatest hits. It also constitutes a list of great film adaptations to follow, from Joe Wright's Pride and Prejudice to Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility. There's one other story, left relatively untold, that Julian Jarrold wishes to tell - the growth of one of the English language's most articulate and mannerly satirical authors, Jane Austen herself. Becoming Jane, an adaptation of a book in itself, ensnares the same bravura as the author's tales themselves. It's a beautiful period film lush with quipping dialogue and strong performances, though it also suffers from a slushy pace and insoluble chemistry between the otherwise well assembled leads.
Watching Becoming Jane feels strongly akin to turning the pages of her second novel, "Pride and Prejudice". As it should, since apparently much of the novel comes influenced from her younger life of laborious love. The film drops us in the middle of the Austen "estate" - a smaller country home pieced together from mud and chipping paint in the English marshes. Education for the clan comes from their preacher father (James Cromwell), while tending to the vegetables and other chores takes precedence. It's a meager life for Jane and her numerous brothers and sister, but in retrospect it provides an environment suitable for intellectual development away from the prim and proper hoopla of Old England. The family's hopes, ultimately, are that the two daughters, Jane (Anne Hathaway)and Cassandra (Anna Martin), will marry for money and escape this life of poverty. However, Jane has an entirely different focus.
Much of the film's strongest points feature Anne Hathaway, as the then bubbly Jane Austen, scribbling notes and lines on parchment as she pensively ponders her authorial direction. Her controlled, yet highly amiable, performance as the young author might waiver a bit in legitimacy from her quivering accent, but still wins over the audience with steadfast diligence. From Hathaway's first high-profile performance in The Princess Diaries, she's always commanded quite a bubbly and electric persona. Her inspired incarnation as Austen, much like her previous roles, accomplishes both personification and congeniality without forcefulness. Sporadic moments when she bolts away from clusters of people to write illustrate the vivacity within both the writer and the actress. She takes Austen's stubbornness and reckless drive for credulity into her careful sight and delivers an effervescent performance.
Clearly, if one's aware of Austen's penmanship and its ability to stringently portray troublesome relationships, then it must be obvious that she had come across an inexorably magnetic man that severely tinkered with her stalwart direction in life. In stumbles the womanizing, pampered law student Thomas LeFroy (James McAvoy), nephew to a high-ranking judge in Ireland, to stay with the Austen family under the care of Jane's brother, Henry (Joe Anderson). McAvoy is an actor who desperately needs to have an eye kept on him, because his talent nearly spills from the seams. He infuses the smarmy and arrogant Tom, believed to be the inspiration behind the character of Mr. Darcy in "Pride and Prejudice", with a vigorous energy that begs for attention, lending spark to a character that, quite possibly, might be the most captivating in the film. His literacy and depth as a character slowly reveals over the course of the film, demonstrating the strong intelligence that a man worthy of Jane Austen's affection would have to carry.
Set during the late 1700's, Becoming Jane ensnares an equal level of vibrancy through its artistic and costume design. It reflects the time period's stark contrast between the beauty of the sopping wealth and the earthy resonance of the English countryside, much to the amusement of keen cinematic eyes. Most of the film's palette leans on a gorgeous blend of soft blues and greens, taking breathers to slosh in a muddy footprint here and a glistening ballroom number there. The "origin" tale of Austen, and everything she stands for, carries a certain level of expectance for its sumptuousness. In visual acuity, the film rarely falters from its portrayal of this foggy, expansive beauty.
Becoming Jane is ultimately a film of bungled relationships, ones that clearly delves into the cloudy nature of older English ties and the horrendous effects of monetary gain on the heart's direction. Jane herself wishes to dodge the woes of most men because of this focus on monetary gain, thus making her in herself virtuous. However, her rebellion seems to be the only way that she can maintain her writer's heart and hand, and Jarrold's film keeps a stern focus on her preserved capacity to try and remain unsullied by the draws of wealthy suitors. History tells that Austen never married; with that in mind, Becoming Jane becomes more of an involved and emotional observation on how the author dodges the efforts of family and friends alike in their resolute drive to toss a barrage of wealthy suitors in her pathway.
Instead, she draws the attention of another rambunctious intellectual in Tom LeFroy, which throws a complication in this narrative. Both Hathaway and McAvoy carry substantial presences on-screen; however, when paired together during the film, they don't carry a lot of interchangeable chemistry. Jane and Tom's bickering can be inspired through some stellar scripted dialogue reminiscent of Jane Austen's penmanship in itself, but the two just didn't sport the sparks that bridge the gap between intelligent power struggle and buzzing attraction. It's as if they, as a heave mind, have two different personalities that immediately flipped like a coin in midair. Both sides are credulous and affective, but it's that blurred transition that might cause a bit of headscratching. It commands an immense leap of faith in the characters, one more willing to be taken by more die-hard fans of these period pieces and fans of Austen's history.
As their relationship undergoes its pinnacle highs and lows, surrounded by the soupy beauty of the lush costume design and cinematography, the film itself moves at a slower, more deliberate pace. It's easy to catch a lot of details etched into Becoming Jane because of this, such as the intricacies of the set design and the attractiveness of Austen's sweeping penmanship. Though beautiful, it makes the film sludge along in dire expectancy for something to arise. This, with the plot and historical time taken into account, can be seen an expected issue. The story of Jane Austen's youth, her impressionable past that leads to her relentless craft, should still be more captivating and rich in the bustling emotionality of the film instead of the concrete aesthetics.
Becoming Jane transcends into a well performed, handsome, and insightful companion piece to the other cinematic adaptations to Jane Austen's novels, even amidst a drudging pace and waning level of chemistry between the electric leads. In essence, much of Austen's influence from one or two of her novels came from her youth, hence why the story feels so comfortably familiar. It'll at times feel a too comfortable due to the material's familiarity, but the splendid script and inspired character portrayals make the turns and tumbles in Becoming Jane meaningful.
Becoming Jane comes presented from Miramax in typically stellar standard keepcase presentation. The coverart, in hand, is very attractive, carrying a shiny slipcover over the case itself. A chapter listing is included with an ad for Enchanted on DVD and Blu-Ray on the flip side.
Presented in its original theatrical 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation, Becoming Jane is a peculiar visual feast. It doesn't thrive much on radiant colors, but more on the stony beauty of fogged-over blues and greens of the countryside. In Miramax's transfer, the cinematography replicates these colors quite well, but neglects to completely pour over the dimensionality of this photography. In makes the image look striking and deep in several scenes, but more flat in others. Black levels, especially, have a few solidity problems here and there as they show a bit of digitization. The richness of the colors, the level of detail, and the sumptuousness captured in the photography, however, still manage to telegraph a few "wow" punches here and there. It's a strong, attractive transfer that could've been a bit tighter.
Presented in an English 5.1 audio track, Becoming Jane's most prominent challenge here is to encapsulate the prickling dialogue. It does so proficiently, but manages to keep most of the activity to the front. Occasionally, with the flapping of a bird's wings and the bustle of a festival, activity flushes back to the rear channels. In response to the dialogue, most of it is crisp and clear; there are a few instances, though, that the clarity of the speech gets a little muffled in the fray. It's not terribly frequent, but just in some more active spots of the film. The score, however, sounds splendid across the board. A Spanish track is also available, as are English SDH, Spanish, and French subtitles.
Becoming Jane provides a nice collection of supplemental materials that help reveal some insights about the film and its conception:
Commentary w/ Jarrold, Writer Kevin Hood, and Producer Robert Bernstein:
In this track, the trio of filmmakers addresses a lot of concerns with splicing dialogue and locational decision into the mix. They discuss the strengths of the actor's performances, as well as many other generalizations about the film. This track is informative, but done in a slightly monotone and uninvolved descriptive nature from the parties that hinders the interest level of the viewer.
Remember the VH1 show Pop-Up Video that described little things about the artists and the music video featured? This portion is exactly like that, only containing a lot of interesting tidbits about Austen's literature and the historical attributes of the film, such as the purses won at boxing matches and the dates of certain literary works published. It plays almost like a separate "commentary" to the film.
Discovering the Real Jane Austen:
Predominately a marketing confection featuring screen time for each of the characters, this 17-minute, pseudo "making-of" piece features a lot of historical reflection and actor focus on the film. All parties, including Jane Austen historian Joan Ray, get some screen time discussing the film, Austen's iconic image, and how the idea of rustling up her younger life on film came about. This feature is non-anamorphic
At a little over 19 minutes, some of these deleted scenes would've added to the quirky, humorous side of the film. Others add to the drab dramatic essence of the English relationship interworkings. Due to pacing, these are very wise edits. Presented in the untouched full-frame negative with, in mot cases, a boom microphone hovering above the actors, these are interesting little tidbits left on the cutting floor.
Becoming Jane grasps the newly-revitalized demeanor of the popularized historical romance and tells the fanciful tale of Jane Austen's youthful romance. Anne Hathaway and James McAvoy give the film a shot of flavor that keeps the film flowing along, but ultimately the pace and finicky chemistry keep this film grounded. It's still an admirably enjoyable piece of period romance that tells its story with heart. Together with a strong line-up of extras and an acceptable solid cinematic presentation, Becoming Jane comes mildly Recommended for fans of the genre and curious parties who wish to see a romanticized version of Jane Austen's chance at love.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site