The Reeler

Reviews

August 1, 2007

Becoming Jane

Austen gets the Austen treatment in another impeccably mannered period charmer

Lay back and don’t think of England -- or Austen -- is the best advice I can give for prospective viewers of Becoming Jane. Better than fine as another exquisitely stiff-lipped, impeccably mannered period charmer, divorce the flinches of conscience caused by Jane Austen getting the Jane Austen treatment from the resultant, respectably appointed film and you are left with a viewing experience that could join the legion of Austen adaptations at a decent ranking. And haters beware: the unmitigated gall of casting cow-eyed Anne Hathaway as one of the greatest writers and sharpest wits who ever lived is not as satisfying a debacle as one might fathom. As an Austen heroine Hathaway does not offend (though her sturdily self-possessed, somewhat ungainly aspect screams American to me, and the accent is rather mild). As Austen herself? That’s anyone’s guess.

And guess they did. Billed as “an imaginative romantic comedy in the spirit of Jane Austen,” writers Sarah Williams and Kevin Hood wove the romance at the heart of Becoming Jane from the slenderest of threads found in a few of the young Austen’s letters to her sister Cassandra. They mention the arrival of a young Irishman by the name of Tom Lefroy, an evening of wantonly numerous shared dances at a ball, and his unceremonious departure at the end of a summer spent as the guest of a neighboring family.

Giving in to what feels like an acutely American temptation to plunge in and yank out any heart not worn on the sleeve, re-branding historical figures with any remaining mystery or dignity as eye-popping Hollywood faces working pat biopic fodder, those scant details are used to scaffold a fanciful tale of what might have been. The gist is that lonely-hearted Miss Austen, disappointed in love, gifted beyond all reason, suborned to a life of relative poverty, spent a lifetime writing novels in which men were forever swooping in on horseback, ultimately doing the right thing and most certainly following their hearts. That is to say, correcting with literature what seems to be the only pivotal romantic event in her own experience.

Once I got past some initial out-and-out outrageous outrage moments (Jane’s parents, played by James Cromwell and Julie Walters, having a bawdy grope in bed; Jane as the incorrigible pianoforte nut and saucy family irritant), director Julian Jarrold’s (Kinky Boots) inventive eye and happy puppy-pacing make it almost impossible not to relax into the yarn at hand. City mouse Lefroy arrives in the form of the darling James McAvoy, a would-be barrister of no fortune and chicken-chested participant in late 18th-century London’s apparent fight club scene. Jane and Tom have a mutual lack of use for each other upon introduction, with James delivering a crushing blow by deeming her writing “accomplished.” Their sparring over the merits of literature is lively, if a little trite, and despite Hathaway practically dwarfing the delicate McAvoy, the air between them breathes fresh; soon enough Tom is provoking our Jane in more ways than one.

Jane (like Beatrix in this winter’s Miss Potter) has pledged to marry only for love, causing endless consternation for her family, her mother in particular, who sees no future for a woman of no means and no husband. With her clotted cream skin and giant red mouth, Hathaway’s coltish affect works in her favor as the headstrong lass, though there is something impenetrable in her rounded, liquid gaze, too limpid to blaze with all that backed up emotion. Tom tells the budding novelist that she needs experience to write well, and he is happy to lead the way. Spurning the nephew of local queen shit Lady Gresham (Maggie Smith, naturally) and scandalizing her elders with a night of dance with James, the manly outburst our blushing, butter topping-stained cheeks are waiting for (“I’m yours,” McAvoy gasps, and you may too) arrives right on time. Of course in life, if not art, suffering is the better part of experience; there is a limit to Tom’s love, and Jane reaches it almost as soon as she reaches London, where the couple travel to gain the favor of Tom’s uncle and beneficiary.

The final third of the film adds a flushed romantic turnabout that only the most tenacious suspenders of disbelief will have no trouble getting down. It’s so great a departure from all things known and conceivable that it will probably divide those who surrendered from those barely tolerating the canonical blasphemy. Me, I just shrugged. I didn’t feel particularly ill-used by Becoming Jane, it has too much charm and spark for such grudgery, enough warmth and wit in the dialogue to float even the crabbiest of boats. I say see for yourself -- do it for America, do it for Hathaway, for Miramax, for impossible loves and importuned monies, tea and sympathy and empire-waisted jollies. Just don’t do it for Jane Austen.



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