If only Jane Austen had been the author of her own pseudo biopic

Becoming Jane

on August 10, 2007 by Wade Major
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That Jane Austen, scribe of some of the most rapturous romances ever conjured in the English language, died unmarried at the premature age of 41 has long been deemed one of history's most compelling ironies. Unfortunately, that's not the thrust of director Julian Jarrold's ( Kinky Boots ) quasi-biography in which quasi-biographer Jon Spence's very sketchy theory that Austen may have had a romantic entanglement with an Irishman named Thomas Lefroy is fleshed out in quasi-Austen fashion.

The aim here is rather obvious and facile, predicated on the notion that all of Austen's books were, in some way, retellings of her own misbegotten romance with Lefroy, a preposterous notion which the film nonetheless makes a brave stab at legitimizing by forcing actors Anne Hathaway and James McAvoy, as the youthful Austen and Lefroy, to emulate every heroine and corresponding suitor that Austen ever put to paper. For the better part of an hour, as the would-be lovers move from mutual disdain to affection only to run headlong into the usual assortment of marital impediments inherent in the pre-Victorian British class system, it's a strange hodgepodge of moments from and references to Emma , Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice with an occasional nod to Mansfield Park and Persuasion . The only Austen novel that screenwriters Sarah Williams and Kevin Hood don't seem able to squish in with the mélange is Austen's first, the satirical Northanger Abbey , which was written some 13 years before she's considered to have genuinely found her authorial voice.

The problem here is that Becoming Jane is not one of Austen's novels. Lacking the breezy, bouncy rhythm of an impeccably plotted Austen novel, it ends up feeling cumbersome and unfocused, like a well-intended but poorly performed second-hand magic trick.

Although the film does eventually give up its referential conceits—the only way to bring the story to any kind of satisfying conclusion—it comes far too late in the game to salvage any real emotional investment in the characters or their plight. Hathaway's Austen is respectable but lacking in the feminist fire with which she herself invested her heroines. Rising star McAvoy is typically strong though noticeably mannered wherever the character appears underwritten. Jarrold does get some very respectable supporting turns from the likes of James Cromwell, Julie Walters, Maggie Smith and Ian Richardson, who lend the picture some solid credentials, but in the end it's just not nearly enough.

If only Austen (or Emma Thompson) could have been around to do a rewrite.
Distributor: Miramax
Cast: Anne Hathaway, James McAvoy, Julie Walters, James Cromwell, Maggie Smith and Ian Richardson
Director: Julian Jarrold
Screenwriters: Sarah Williams and Kevin Hood
Producers: Graham Broadbent, Robert Bernstein and Douglas Rae
Genre: Period drama
Rating: PG for brief nudity and mild language
Running time: 113 min.
Release date: August 3, 2007 ltd., August 10 wide
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