It's almost inconceivable that a female British novelist born a year before the American Revolution would be such a hot ticket more than 230 years later, but Jane Austen has become as much a darling of cinema as she has literature. All four of the novels she had published during her lifetime--Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), and Emma (1815)--have been made into very successful films.
In 2007 attention turned to the author herself, with Robin Swicord directing "The Jane Austen Book Club" about six Californians whose lives parallel Austen's characters, and Julian Jarrold giving us "Becoming Jane."
The latter does for Austen what "Finding Neverland" did for J.M. Barrie and "Shakespeare in Love" did for The Bard--exploring a period in the author's life that was pivotal in shaping the direction his/her fiction would take. And while "Becoming Jane" doesn't quite have the spark or magical feeling that we get from those other biographical movies--or even the best adaptations of the author's novels, for that matter--Anne Hathaway makes a fine Jane Austen, and "Becoming Jane" is still a solid period film.
Shot on location in Ireland rather than Austen's Bath, Southampton, and Chawton in southern England, "Becoming Jane" nonetheless conveys a sense what the author's world was like. Director of photography Eigil Bryld takes full advantage of the scenery, apparently knowing that it's as important as character in a film like this. Bryld's use of a stationary camera is particularly impressive, where, for example, we'll see a gorgeous seascape into which two small figures walk and pass across. Other times it's a reliance on interestingly cropped closed frames that convey a sense of containment. Moments like these build to a cumulative dramatic effect which superbly matches the external drama going on in Austen's life and the internal struggle that's hinted at.
So when did Austen "become Jane"? According to scholar Jon Spence, whose speculative, New Historical biography became the basis for the screenplay, it begins in 1795 when a 20-year-old Austen feels torn between prevailing social mores and customs and her own strong will. Women at this time can't be formally educated and aren't supposed to be outspoken, but Austen finds herself gauging when to bite her tongue and when to unleash it with all the power of a wise orator. Novelists at this time are mostly considered dabblers and amusing dalliance purveyors for and by women, but Austen believes the novel can and should document the real lives of people and boldly (bawdily, if necessary) speak the truth--something that's all but confirmed when she's given a copy of Henry Fielding's Tom Jones by a friend of her brother's. And at a time when an entire family's security is dependent upon marring "up" the social ladder, Austen has the audacity to believe that it's better to marry for love and be poor than to marry a wealthy man for security.
As Tom Lefroy, a rakish gentleman caught up in much the same socio-economic dilemma, James McAvoy ("The Last King of Scotland") appropriately evokes not only Mr. Darcy and all of Austen's dashing-but-slightly-roguish leading men but also the rascally character from the novel he gives Jane. By juxtaposing him against the bland and awkward Mr. Wiseley (Laurence Fox), Spence provides the same kind of subtle critique on class and wealth that we find in Austen's novels. The smartest, most dashing, and most ambitious people are not the ones whose stations are high and respected. It's these types of depictions that have prompted critics through the ages to praise Austen for her unflinching social commentary and the wry wit and irony that informs her prose and dialogue. Her characters fight the same battles as we see Austen fighting here, with mixed results.
It's a nice parallel to have Mr. Lefroy in virtually the same predicament as the woman he declares his love for, and it's that shared problem (and entreaties from others to get them to use their "heads") that mostly drives the narrative. That, and the wonderful countryside and depiction of rural peasant life that brings the late 1700s to life.
The supporting cast is wonderful, with Julie Walters and James Cromwell playing Austen's parents and Maggie Smith the wealthy aunt who tries to force Mr. Wiseley on poor Jane. If there's a downside here, it's that with so many brothers and a close relationship to sister Cassandra (Anna Maxwell Martin), you almost wish for more domestic scenes and sibling interaction to distract (and deepen) an otherwise straightforward narrative.
Austen wrote comedies of manners, and if there's one thing that most relegates this film to good-but-not-exceptional status, it's that there aren't as many subtle, humorous attacks on society as Austen launched in her books. There are some exchanges that hold up. "Well, I'm a sensible woman" is followed by "Thank God I am not, by your description." Or, when an older woman is chided for her behavior, she remarks, "Flirting is a woman's trait. One must keep in practice." Later, this one: "I am a lawyer. Justice plays no part in the law." And my personal favorite, "What's she doing? "Writing." "Can anything be done about it?"
No. Thank goodness. Though Spence picked up some criticism for a biography that tries to reconstruct so much from so few letters and traditional "evidence," he gives Austen fans a pleasant fiction that does indeed help to explain how she became the novelist we now know and revere.
The 1080p picture is presented in 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and the transfer has just one really noticeable problem. At the 13-minute mark or so, there's some pixellation and what appears to be a brief compression problem that resolves itself quickly. Other than that, the colors look slightly (yet appropriately, given the tone) undersaturated, and there's the slightest touch of grain that's especially noticeable on bright exterior scenes. There may not be as much of a sense of 3-dimensionality as in some of the better Blu-rays, and the detail doesn't leap out at you as in the best Blu-rays, but the "soft" look again seems compatible with the period film. Maybe it was a director's decision.
An English PCM 5.1 (48kHz/24-bit) uncompressed audio delivers a full, round-toned sound at both ends of the register, with a nice spread across the front speakers. I didn't notice a great deal of rear-speaker activity, though, apart from the music and several up-tempo action scenes--as when Jane follows after two men and catches a glimpse of them stripping down. Subtitles are in English SDH, French and Spanish.
For a change, there's a nice, quiet, easy-to-navigate menu. Blu-rays have been going a bit nuts with the "bonk" "bleep" "boop" noises to where you almost flinch every time you press "enter." Not so here, with a board that matches the tone of the film. It's also convenient that the time is shown for each feature so you know if you have the time to watch it.
On the negative side, I thought we had gotten past the DVD/Blu-ray divide when it came to bonus features, but Blu-ray comes up short again. In addition to a commentary track, the DVD has 13 deleted scenes which are here, a behind-the-scenes featurette, a dance featurette, a make-up and costume design featurette, and a featurette on filming the boxing and cricket scenes. The Blu-ray includes the commentary, deleted scenes, a making-of featurette, and a pop-up trivia track for the Blu-ray exclusive.
The audio commentary with directory Jarrold, writer Kevin Hood, and producer Robert Bernstein is interesting enough, with the trio explaining all that Hathaway did to get the part she really wanted, including learning how to play piano especially for the film and developing the same style handwriting as Austen. The commentary covers the usual ground, from why they filmed in Ireland (tax breaks!) to how certain shots were filmed. The pop-up trivia track is above average, and the boxes themselves aren't all that obtrusive. The pop-up menu takes you to the main menu and plays the movie in a tiny, tiny box, so you're able to hear but not really see what's going on. The deleted scenes (19.33 minutes) are worth watching, as is the 16:57-minute featurette. But three short features and a photomontage turn up missing on the Blu-ray version.
Though "Becoming Jane" lacks the magic of "Finding Neverland" and "Shakespeare in Love," it's still a strong period film and an engaging, speculative account of how Jane Austen may have found her voice and her subject matter.