‘Becoming Jane’

Jane, this is all rather unbecoming, isn't it?


“Becoming Jane” catches Anne Hathaway at a dip in her career — in the valley terrain where the “Get Smart” series stands like midrate hotels in a remote holiday resort, situated between the high-profile “The Devil Wears Prada” and the deceptively low-rent, indie-sheen of “Rachel Getting Married.” She’s still carting around some of her “Princess Diaries” haughtiness, but minus any street cred, and she seems a little uncomfortable with her striking, patrician beauty. But all that works to her credit in “Becoming Jane,” a late 18th-century love story and the film shows Hathaway (in the title role), by turns confident and independent, insecure and defensive.

Directed by Julian Jarrold, “Becoming Jane” is a fuzzy, fictional biopic that zeros in on an affair that English novelist Jane Austen may or may not have had, emphasis on the may not. Uncertainty is the defining concept here.

For an actress, playing Jane Austen is probably not quite the same thing as playing the intuitive Emma (“Emma,” Gwyneth Paltrow) or the flighty Marianne (“Sense and Sensibility,” Kate Winslet) — landmark roles of successful careers. Very little is known about Jane Austen’s personal life. Unlike, say, Virginia Woolf, she never broadcasted her escapades (if indeed she had any) and she was a rarity among women of letters in that she avoided — like the plague — social events, parlor games and other 18th-century Facebook equivalents. She wrote, she guarded her privacy and subsequently left little for biographers and fan sites.

Becoming Jane
Director Julian Jarrold
Run Time 120 minutes
Language English

But Jarrold and screenwriter Kevin Hood clutch at a few meager lines of Jane’s correspondence (written to her sister Cassandra) like drowning sailors grabbing at their ship’s mast — and blow it up into two hours of tastefully lit, beautifully frocked late 18th-century English romance. How’s that for cinematic alchemy?

The lines mention an Irish lawyer named Tom Lefroy (played here by James McAvoy) with a comment about how “interesting” the young barrister seems to be. Notice how the word is “interesting” instead of something like “dreamy” or “absolute corker” — in real life, Lefroy had a distinguished career that led to a post as Lord Chief Justice of Ireland — right in the middle of a potato famine. Not very amorous, alas. But that doesn’t stop Jarrold and Co., from imagining and refashioning the guy into a dashing, roguish romantic with perfect pecs and sweat that glistens and lingers on the ends of his dark, glossy hair.

He presses a copy of “Tom Jones” into Jane’s hands and introduces her to a world of literature replete with adventure and heady with passion. And Jane, for all the good breeding hoisted on her by her interfering mum (Julie Walters), finds herself powerless to resist the charms of sparky Mr. Lefroy, who represents everything she’d been missing in her sheltered life.

Airy in tone and lit with a misty, golden light, “Becoming Jane” brings a wonderful sensory experience that is, however, strangely removed from the spirit of both the era and Austen’s novels.

Though Hathaway masters an uppercrust British accent and an aristocratic carrying of the head, she falls short of muting her aggressively positive, modern woman patina. The role of Jane calls for repressed basic needs and feminine angst tempered by an acidulous pen, but Hathaway herself comes off as a gal who has never had less than three options to choose from, for whatever she wanted to do.

It’s hard to imagine her Jane sitting in a dark, draughty corner of a country cottage writing about the foibles of her fellow men (which Jane Austen apparently did three to four hours every single day). In the movie she rises adorably from a canopied bed in a snow-white night dress and starts writing at her desk in the glorious morning light of the English countryside (where it never rains, either.) No wonder this Jane feels no particular need to listen to her mother and marry a wealthy bloke (Laurence Fox) to ensure some financial security in an uncertain future — an issue that lies at the core of every Austen heroine. The title belies the contents of the movie; as much as we’d like to believe that Jane Austen swayed prettily between a sizzler of a love relationship and the rewards of a literary career the illusion doesn’t quite hold, in spite of the efforts Hathaway puts into becoming Jane.