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The youngest of the Austen clan, Jane (Anne Hathaway) suffers from the ridiculous notion that she will marry for love and her writing will support her. With no romantic prospects in sight, Jane is forced to consider marrying for money, when into her life walks Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy). A dashing law student, Tom has little in the way of prominence, but gives his entire heart to the young author. As their affair heats to a boil, the reality of their positions in society is a burden too much to bear, lending Jane the inspiration for her most famous novels.
"Becoming Jane" is a lovely little heartbreaker, but to find that emotional core, you have to sit through the rigmarole of costume drama formula. Oh yes, the social obligations, tea time, gossip, mud-caked farmland, horse-drawn carriages, and pining are all accounted for here, at times almost more out of obligation than inspiration. Director Julian Jarrold ("Kinky Boots") is faithful to the expectations, but never aggressively so. He's painting a larger portrait of the elements that informed Austen's writing, devastating self-criticism, and love of irony, and if they fail to awaken the senses (the first act does get a little overtly sleepy), they do justifiably have a place in the narrative.
It takes the attraction between Jane and Tom to slap the film to life. It's never the production value or the period recreation that sells a costume drama to me, it's the passion. Thankfully, Jarrold understands the value of love on the rocks, and starts to massage the torture Jane feels once she finds her heart engorged for a man she is destined to be separated from.
Hathaway and McAvoy spin the bottle wonderfully, pitch-perfect in their repression of attraction. Using eyes and quivering throats to expressing heir longing, "Jane" is beautiful when it pays attention to the soreness of doomed affection. Again, Jarrold isn't arranging the plot in any sort of revolutionary manner, so it makes a difference when you have actors capable of breathing between the lines, giving the viewer a peek at mental processes that would never find the light of day through dialogue.
"Becoming Jane" isn't a series of cold hard facts: this is an imagined life for the beloved author, tying her real passions and failures to those she spent her life writing about. It's a charming, peaceful picture; a perfect diversion for those who like their corsets tight and confining and their romance kept behind a fence of social judgment and impossible odds.