Prior knowledge of Jane Austen’s life
will not enhance the viewer’s enjoyment of the film.”
Becoming Jane is not really about Jane Austen. Becoming is about us and our Austen- inspired, time travel fantasies. Through the artistry of costume and set designers, whose efforts must be applauded, Becoming may achieve the outward appearance of Regency England, but do not be deceived. The film is a collection of modern attitudes, assumptions, whimsy, values and prejudices playing dress up.
A willful, impulsive, self confident, aspiring career girl, the Jane Austen of Becoming Jane (Anne Hathaway) is a twenty-first century woman in a pretty frock who inevitably finds herself at odds with the archaic society in which she has been placed. Thoroughly modern Jane naturally rebels and “setting propriety at nought” proceeds to indulge in some extremely unlikely behavior, exactly the same activities which Austen cautions against in her novels. But this is a material point in understanding the film.
Predicated on the notion that art imitates life, Becoming Jane assumes that Jane Austen, her family, friends and acquaintances must have inspired the characters, spoken the lines and enacted the plot twists of Austen’s novels. Thus, Becoming’s Jane Austen is a Frankenstein combination of Catherine Morland’s admiration of Ann Radcliffe (Helen McCrory), Marianne Dashwood’s excessive romanticism, Emma Woodhouse’s self assurance, Anne Elliot’s indecision and Lydia Bennet’s impulsivity. You will note that these traits are the weaknesses of Austen’s fictional characters, not their strengths. The result of this weird alchemy of flaws is someone strangely familiar because she is so… us. Hathaway attempts to speak with an English accent, but she really needn’t have bothered. It’s obviously not Jane Austen under that bonnet.
The film’s love interest, bad boy Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy), is another Regency misfit. A lazy, disgruntled, playboy student who fancies himself an athlete, Lefroy makes an arrogant, Mr. Darcy first impression. But Lefroy turns out to be John Willoughby, a self-indulgent libertine who plans to marry for money all along but who falls in love with Miss Penniless in spite of himself. Lefroy’s fate is Sense and Sensibility’s version of rough justice.
The rest of Becoming’s cast is a mixed bag of Austen’s minor characters. Not quite equal to the stoicism of Elinor Dashwood, the resignation of Jane Bennet or the fortitude of Fanny Price, Austen’s sister Cassandra (Anna Maxwell Martin) deals with her loss with admirable self-control, and Mr. Austen (James Cromwell) is a surprisingly lusty Mr. Bennet. Mrs. Austen (Julie Walters) begins as a Mrs. Bennet scold but develops into Lady Russell dispensing well intended though unsolicited advice. Austen’s fictional admirer Mr. Wisley (Laurence Fox) also serves double duty, first as a Mr. Collins “booby” but later emerging as a long suffering and sympathetic Colonel Brandon who never gets his Marianne. The happily-ever-after ending goes to Austen’s brother Henry (Joe Anderson) and her cousin Eliza (Lucy Cohu) who eventually emerge from the church as man and wife but only after a good deal of pre-marital impropriety.
No film with Maggie Smith and Ian Richardson can be all bad. Smith’s Lady Grishom/Lady Catherine was predictably sour and amusing, and Richardson’s Judge Langlois/Sir Thomas Bertram, deciding the fates of criminals and nephews with equal deliberation and dispatch, was the most interesting character in the film. But, indeed, the entire cast did their best with the parts they were given.
There’s no denying that Becoming Jane is a feast for the eyes. Although not Austen’s rural Hampshire, the Irish scenery is lovely. With the complexion of a Royal Doulton figurine, Hathaway herself is beautiful to behold. The costumes and sets were meticulously constructed, and there are horses, carriages and Georgian architecture aplenty. A lot of time and attention went into the making of this film, and it seems to have so many of the right ingredients, but Becoming Jane is ultimately lacking a vital force. The spirit was willing, but the script was weak.
This film is rated PG for brief nudity and mild language (edited for re-rating; initially was rated PG-13). Becoming Jane is open in theaters around the world. Check local listings for showtimes. Also visit the Becoming Jane Fansite for historical articles and other film information.
Sheryl Craig is an Instructor of English at Central Missouri State University. She is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Kansas.