Becoming JaneReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 08/03/07 14:00:00
“Becoming Jane” is a film that purports to tell the true story of the early days of beloved authoress Jane Austen by focusing on the events that allegedly inspired her to write her best-known book, “Pride and Prejudice.” This would seem on the surface to be a daunting task for any filmmaker because of the simple fact that there is precious little information on Austen’s life to go on–she never married, she died relatively young of an unknown illness and most of her personal papers and letters were destroyed after her death by her sister, Cassandra. Of course, this would only seem daunting to someone who actually wanted to make a real movie on her life and work and from the earliest scenes, it quickly becomes apparent that the people behind this film aren’t interested in any of that–they are too busy trying to figure out a way to sell yet another version of “Pride and Prejudice” to audiences that have already seen it staged in the last few years as a television miniseries (the lavish and justifiably famous 1995 BBC adaptation), a straightforward feature film (the Oscar-nominated 2005 version with Keira Knightley), a modernized take (“Bridget Jones’ Diary”) and even, God help us all, as a Bollywood-styled musical (“Bride and Prejudice”).The film stars Anne Hathaway as Jane and as the film opens, she is living in comfortable squalor with her loving family and nursing ambitions of one day being a writer. Although her father (James Cromwell) is encouraging, the late 1700's were not a good time for a young woman yearning to be independent and her mother (Julie Walters) pooh-poohs the notion entirely while trying to marry her off to someone wealthy enough to provide for her and help with the family’s financial difficulties. A seemingly ideal match is arranged with the nephew of the rich and powerful Lady Gresham (Maggie Smith) but Jane will have nothing to do with him, believing him to be a priggish bore. Right about this time sees the arrival of Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy), the wild and rambunctious nephew of the staid Judge Langlois (Ian Richardson), who has exiled him to the countryside for the summer to cure him of being a rakehell and a bounder. Within a few minutes of their first meeting, Tom derides a story that Jane has written as being juvenile fluff at just about the same time that Jane decides that he is a thoughtless and unlikable boor without a serious bone in his body.
Of course, in those days, such behavior was considered to be foreplay and before too long, they are swooning madly at each other. More importantly, Tom helps her to realize her potential as an author by suggesting that she read Henry Fielding’s “Tom Jones” for inspiration–sadly, this does not lead to any interesting dinnertime scenes of note but it does apparently help her writing immeasurably. Before long, they decide to marry but when they go to visit Langlois to get his blessing, he receives a note suggesting that Jane is nothing more than a gold-digger out for money and forbids the marriage. Jane is crestfallen but perks up considerably when Tom asks her to elope with him even though it will mean that he will be cut off from his family for good. For various reasons, the elopement doesn’t work out but as a result of these experiences, Jane is able to find the strength to sit down and pen the novels that would secure her name in the annals of literary history forever.
Okay, so “Becoming Jane” probably doesn’t bear much of a resemblance to what really happened to Jane Austen in those days–the entire romance with Tom Lefroy has been extrapolated by biographers based solely on a couple of mentions of him in the few letters of hers that weren’t destroyed–but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the film itself couldn’t have been good anyway. After all, “Shakespeare in Love”–a film that “Becoming Jane” desperately wants to be–also did a lot of embroidering on a couple of facts surrounding William Shakespeare and the creation of “Romeo and Juliet” and that didn’t hurt that film a bit. The difference is that while “Shakespeare In Love” was at times unapologetically goofy in tone (at times approaching the freewheeling silliness of the old “Mr Peabody & Sherman” cartoons, albeit with more gratuitous nudity) and fairly implausible in historical terms, it at least demonstrated a certain amount of admiration and respect for Shakespeare and his work that “Becoming Jane” never displays towards its subject. Instead of trying to come up with a storyline that pays homage to the woman and her work while offering up a few surprises (which shouldn’t matter too much seeing as how they are already making things up), co-writers Kevin Hood and Sarah Williams lazily offer up a thin variation of “Pride And Prejudice” and all we can think of while watching this take is how much better the material was handled in some of the other versions that have come along in recent years.
This particular aspect of “”Becoming Jane” didn’t really surprise me that much–when you are stuck for a compelling story, why not raid a time-honored classic for material? What did surprise me, and will no doubt take many Jane Austen fanatics aback, is the utter lack of respect that the film shows her as a writer. In real life, I am led to understand that she was already a fairly accomplished writer long before her encounter with Tom Lefroy but the film would have us believe that she wasn’t that good until his romantic overtures turned her into a better writer–if it weren’t for him and his influence on her heart, the film incredibly seems to suggest, her work would have never amounted to anything. If that weren’t bad enough, it also wants us to believe that “Pride and Prejudice” was less the creative effort of a spirited and talented authoress with a vivid imagination and a flair for character and dialogue and more a long bit of dictation of events in her life that she was seemingly able to dash off in the space of an evening or two. This is a condescending and anti-artistic take on Austen and her work–that old canard that one cannot write a love story unless one is currently in love themselves–and I suspect that many fans of Austen’s work, especially those who have transformed her into a feminist icon, are likely to be less than thrilled with a film that suggests that she never would have amounted to anything if it weren’t for a man.Oddly miscast (while Anne Hathaway is a smart and plucky actress, she is never convincing for a second as Jane–was there not one British actress available for the part?), indifferently directed (director Julian Jarrold comes from the world of television and based on flat style he demonstrates here, it seems as if he never left it) and weirdly dismissive of its main character and her artistic capabilities, “Becoming Jane” is a strange little nothing of a movie–one so aggressively bland and inconsequential that it makes the recent “Miss Potter” seem like “Naked Lunch” by comparison. There may well be an amusing and interesting story in the subject of Jane Austen’s early years but you wouldn’t know it from the results captured here. Early on, a character remarks that “Wit is the most treacherous talent of all” and based on the evidence contained within, the minds behind “Becoming Jane” are among the least treacherous people that you are likely to meet.
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