I should stipulate here that, from time to time, I'll go into conference with my softer side and really get hip deep into a film that I have no business in liking. But I've got to say in the interests of full disclosure that my wife is as much a part of this review as I am. You can't just do beer and red meat on this stuff all the time. Sometimes white wine and chicken works better. Anyway, we return you to our normally scheduled programming.
Jane Austen is alive. No, she's not a vampire and it's not in the physical back-from-the-dead way. It has much to do with an upsurge in the past few years to reintroduce Austen to all forms of media. There was Pride and Prejudice with Keira Knightley in 2005 (personally, I prefer the 1996 BBC miniseries myself), Jane Austen Book Club, which was both a book and 2007 film, and finally, Anne Hathaway as Jane herself in Becoming Jane. And while Austen did not write the script for Becoming Jane, I would like to think that she'd be proud of the work of its co-ed screenwriters (Sarah Williamson and Kevin Hood).
Some may know that Austen never married, and this film, which is loosely based on her life, gives a glimpse into a potential reason why. She lived in the 18th century, a time when daughters were to be married off as soon as possible, preferably to successful and rich men. The idea of love before marriage was often not considered as an important factor, something that Jane took exception with. It's hard to watch an entire film through a veil of tears, but I did manage to capture the basic idea. If I missed anything, you can sure pick it up in the book it was based on, titled Becoming Jane Austen by Jon Spence. As a young English girl living with her large family, Jane is getting too old to be unmarried, something her parents (mostly her mother) are working hard to correct. She is passionate about writing and plans on not marrying for money as she's convinced she can make it on her own with just her pen if necessary.
A young ne'er do-well from London, Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy, Atonement), is sent by his rich uncle to live with the Austen's in the country to get him to settle down. Tom and Jane find that they often clash, but do so intelligently and both become quietly excited to have met someone that they believe don't conform to society's norm. There is more than one problem, though. First, her family believes Tom a bad choice for Jane. As someone who depends on his uncle for money, Tom himself is poor. To rectify some of this, Tom attempts to introduce Jane to his uncle and get his approval, but there is mischief afoot. On top of all that, Jane's parents try to arrange a marriage proposal from the nephew of a wealthy and irritating old bat (Maggie Smith, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix).
Combine these issues with balls (the dancing kind), death, sisters, love, heartache, fame, humor, and you've got a fantastic film that really shows you what true love is like. Anne Hathaway portrays perfectly a woman torn between her heart and mind, while James McAvoy has become one of my new favorite actors. There are other cast members, of course, but they're peripheral. I think it says a lot about a film when you don't even realize that you could care less about the more secondary characters. It had been awhile since I'd seen a romantic movie that really made me ache, in fact, not since The Notebook have I seen a film really worth crying over. The film suggests that during this particular time in her life, she started writing Pride and Prejudice, originally titled First Impressions, something I'll be excited to read again.
The Blu-ray Disc:
At first I thought that Becoming Jane had a VC-1 encode to this 2.35:1 widescreen presentation; but I double checked and saw that it was an MPEG-4 one, which I understood a lot more of, because the MPEG-4 work looks great here. Blacks are deep and always seem to provide a contrast without very little crush to speak of, and the Irish greenery looks vivid in all its splendor and glory. The only thing that was a slight bother about this video was that the flesh tones in the film seem to sport a little bit of an overly white tendency at times, but otherwise the film looks great.
You get a PCM uncompressed 5.1 soundtrack to delight those pieces of flesh, cartilage and bone that hang just off your head. But the film's sound doesn't really lend too much in the way of reference quality work or anything; environmental stuff like rain or other outdoor activities sound natural, dialogue remains focused in the center channel without any distortion or other effects to speak of. This is solid and unspectacular, but does the job.
The Blu-Ray DVD is not entirely devoid of extras. The largest item is the commentary with Hood, Director Julian Jarrold and Producer, Robert Bernstein. You can run the commentary with an optional pop-up style of interesting tidbits about Jane Austen and this film. I found out a few things in the commentary and pop-up facts, but most were just that--facts, so if you're watching to learn about film-making, I'd skip it. First of all, this was filmed in Ireland, where it rained nearly every day, but that's how it stays so green! Jane Austen's father believed in her writing, so much so that he bought her a vellum journal, as paper was very expensive. The dances (or balls) as exemplified in the film were one of the only ways young men and women were allowed to touch or speak without a chaperone. It was frowned upon if a young woman danced more than twice with the same young man, unless they were engaged. Oh, and much to my surprise, Anne Hathaway did her senior thesis on Jane Austen when she was at Vassar. In fact, her penmanship in the film is closer to Jane Austen's handwriting than that of the writing "coach." All of these facts lead me to believe that Anne Hathaway was absolutely the right actress for this role.
"Discovering the Real Jane Austen" is a 17-minute piece on essentially the making of the film. Short interviews with cast members, and some information about Austen from the President of the Jane Austen Society of North America are included. I'd recommend watching this, if you're at all interested in Jane Austen, but if you want to skip it, most of the facts are included in the pop-up video option. Lastly, 20 minutes of deleted scenes. Some of these were actually interesting, including a scene that gets into a subplot some more; Henry (Jane's brother) and his engagement to Eliza (Jane's cousin). Plus, I'll take any more scenes from the film that I can get.
Jane Austen was quite the woman. The characters in her stories often met with happier ends than she herself ever experienced. That kind of heartache can drive a film into greatness, making this a romance for the ages. I would definitely recommend purchasing this.