Anne Hathaway, James McAvoy, Julie Walters
Directed by Julian Jarrold
Jane Austen fans, be warned: Becoming Jane is highly unlikely to teach you anything new about your favorite English novelist of manners; in fact, it may drive you a little bit nuts, since the filmmakers take a rather freewheeling approach to the groundbreaking female author, extrapolating an entire life-altering romance from a few lines in some of Austen’s letters that survived after her death. By reducing Austen’s talent to a somewhat crude cause-and-effect relationship between her writing and her brief courtship with roguish lawyer Tom Lefroy (McAvoy), they do a disservice to Austen’s legacy, as well as to the legions of writers and admirers who look up to her.
Mostly, though, they just tell a second-rate Jane Austen story. Determined to make the author’s life as much like one of her novels as possible, they underline the similarities between Austen (Hathaway) and Pride and Prejudice heroine Elizabeth Bennet: Like Elizabeth, Austen is a witty and well-read young woman with a close relationship to her older sister and a large country family in a precarious financial position. Her mother (Walters) conspires to marry her off to the nephew of a dour but wealthy family friend, but it’s the arrival of an initially disagreeable young man that really sets the young woman’s heart racing.
The connections are further emphasized by having Austen begin writing Pride while engaged in her relationship with Tom, and hammered home by wink-nudge references in the dialogue. The interweaving of a famous literary work’s events with the life of its creator could be clever and whimsical, as in Shakespeare in Love (which was clearly more of an affectionate parody than a historical re-creation), but director Jarrold and the two screenwriters opt for a dull, realistic tone that’s neither illuminating nor amusing.
Hathaway is a generally charming actress, but she struggles here with her English accent and period dialogue. McAvoy is much more comfortable, and the two do occasionally get into some verbal sparring matches that favorably recall Austen’s work. It’d be a lot more pleasurable, though, to experience that work firsthand, either in one of the many accomplished Austen cinematic adaptations, or in the author’s books themselves.