Every light romance and romantic comedy looks for a new angle. That's understandable. "Becoming Jane," the 2007 historical-romantic fiction from director Julian Jarrold ("Some Kind of Life," "Kinky Boots"), takes the life of early nineteenth-century English author Jane Austen and asks "What if?" What if there were a closer historical foundation for the writer's romantic novels than we might expect? What if the spinster Austen were herself the basis for many of her heroines, and her own personal experiences formed the groundwork for the conflicts of mores, manners, and women's rights in her books? It's a fascinating proposition, and the movie almost--almost--pulls it off.
Austen (1775-1817), whom literary critics often credit with developing the modern novel, meant her stories as mild satires on the class struggles and gender biases of her time, when the people of Europe took matters of class division and male superiority for granted. The books Austen wrote ("Sense and Sensibility," "Pride and Prejudice," "Mansfield Park," "Emma," "Northanger Abbey," and "Persuasion") were really quite daring for their day, especially as she was herself a female engaged in a predominantly male-dominated profession.
The world knows relatively little about the personal life of Jane Austen, who died fairly young and remained unmarried her entire life. We know little because the author wanted it that way and because after her death her sister Cassandra kept her notebooks and diaries away from public scrutiny, eventually destroying most of them. So, "Becoming Jane" takes what little we know about Austen's private life, like her family affairs and her brief engagement, and flies with it, fictionalizing the possibilities.
The story begins with Jane (Anne Hathaway) in her early twenties, living with her large family in the country, not yet having written her first book. But it's clear to see she is a "woman of independent thought," and writing is her ambition. The trouble is that society back then did not deem writing a proper occupation for a woman. Society expected a woman either to be born rich or marry rich and then have a family of her own. So as the movie opens, Jane's mother worries about Jane's future, all the while planning a suitable young man for her to marry, preferably the nephew of the local Lady of the manor, Lady Gresham. Jane has other ideas.
The romantic interest shows up in the person of the carefree Tom Lafroy (James McAvoy), a young, rowdy, penniless Irish law student who lives in London with his uncle, a judge, and from whom he receives an allowance. At the time of the story, the judge has banished Tom to the country for the summer because of his indulgent ways. Needless to say, young Tom coincidentally moves in next door to the Austens, and he and Jane take an immediate dislike for one another.
Tom thinks that Jane's writing is juvenile rubbish and that the country is a pain. Jane finds Tom rude and vain, writing of him as "disagreeable, insolent, arrogant, impudent, insufferable," and the most "impertinent of men." They argue about the value of her writing, and he finally concedes that he finds it "accomplished," to which she responds that it is "ironic." He thinks country folk are all bumpkins, and she must disabuse him of the notion by displaying her sophistication and erudition.
Anyway, Tom tells Jane that if she is "to be the equal of a masculine author, experience is vital." Which is one of the main points of the tale. She replies, sarcastically, that he is just the "extraordinary young man" to widen her horizons. Jane and Tom spar like this for the first half of the picture before discovering that, of course, they are in love.
Meanwhile, the story must explore the other half of its theme: Not only should a person gain experience to be a good writer, a person should prove that gender is no object. That's the tough part. At the time, writing was thought a "scandalous" profession for a woman. When Lady Gresham (Maggie Smith) sees Jane jotting down some notes, she asks "What is she doing?" Her nephew answers, "Writing." To which Lady Gresham replies, "Can anything be done about it?"
Jane's mother is adamant about her marrying the Lady's nephew. "You will have nothing unless you marry," she pleads. "Well, then, I would have nothing, but I will not marry without affection," says Jane. "Affection is desirable; money is absolutely indispensable," retorts the mother. Jane suggests she could live by her pen, and her mother scoffs. Jane's father is more sympathetic, but he is still skeptical. He says, "Nothing destroys spirit like poverty."
Therefore, the question is, Should Jane marry for money as all good, decent young women of her period did, or should she marry for love, or should she pursue a career in writing, which was almost unheard of? Well, we know what happened in real life. She wrote, she remained single, and she died young.
Anne Hathaway seems unlike the Jane Austen that most of us imagine. Hathaway's Jane seems far more high spirited and athletic than history would led us to believe. Still, the real Jane probably wasn't much different from any other young girl, and growing up in the countryside with a flock of brothers and sisters probably did influence her behavior. James McAvoy, who would be more convincing as the young lover in "Atonement" later in the year, makes an acceptable foil for Jane; yet their on-screen chemistry seems less than persuasive. Better, the old pros in the movie upstage them both. Julie Walters as Jane's mother and James Cromwell as her father are thoroughly delightful; Maggie Smith as Lady Gresham is appropriately pompous; and Ian Richardson as Judge Langlois is properly rigid and coldhearted.
However, the beauty of the countryside and the gorgeous cinematography, shot mostly on location in Ireland (the director chose to use only a few establishing shots of Jane's England), outshine all of the cast. Excellent period detail, attractive costumes, and an intelligent script round out the movie's virtues.
Nevertheless, here's the problem: Despite all the sweetness and charm of the characters, the wit of the dialogue, the handsome photography and location shooting, and the excellent cast, "Becoming Jane" never actually gets off the ground. It never quite comes to life. It never quite grabs you and pulls you in. It's a little too earthbound, too commonplace, and, worse, too generally well known. It is, after all, a take on Austen's own "Pride and Prejudice" in particular, combined with events in Austen's real life. And we're all too well aware how both her novel and her life unfolded.
As lovely as it is, there's a feeling with "Becoming Jane" that we have seen it all before. Perhaps in other movies; perhaps on "Masterpiece Theatre." Many times.
Trivia note: If the notion that Jane Austen could only have written about romantic affairs by having had a failed romantic affair with a man in her own life seems too egocentrically male to you, be aware that both a man and a woman, Kevin Hood and Sarah Williams, co-wrote the screenplay. It helps to deflect some of the criticism.
Buena Vista's high-bit-rate, anamorphic transfer does justice to the beauty of the 2.35:1 ratio picture. Note, however, that the filmmakers shot much of the countryside in soft focus, with almost pastel tints. Therefore, the colors, while quite natural, particularly facial tones, are also slightly soft. In addition, there is the faintest evidence of haloing in select scenes and a fine print grain; but for the most part the video is clean and pleasurable.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 sonics are a touch bright and forward, but the musical track opens up nicely to the surrounds, which provide a warm, ambient bloom. A few environmental sounds of birds, brooks, and crowds in the rear channels add to one's enjoyment. Voices remain anchored out in the center channel, as with most movies; the frequency and dynamic ranges are hardly called upon to do anything yet rise to the occasion in a few instances; and the midrange is quiet, clear, and well projected, never drowned out by the music or special effects.
There are four major bonus items on the disc: (1) An audio commentary with director Julian Jarrold, writer Kevin Hood, and producer Robert Bernstein, which is straightforward and informative, if a little dry; (2) a seventeen-minute making-of featurette, "Discovering the Real Jane Austin"; (3) thirteen deleted scenes totaling about nineteen minutes; and (4) a series of pop-up facts and footnotes one can access during the movie.
Things conclude with sixteen scene selections and a chapter insert, Sneak Peeks at five other Buena Vista products, English and Spanish spoken languages, French and Spanish subtitles, English captions for the hearing impaired, and a handsomely embossed slipcover.
If the rest of "Becoming Jane" had been as touching as the movie's ending, we might have had something. As it is, there are many things in the film to enjoy, most especially the sweetness of Ms. Hathaway's performance and the beautiful period settings and costumes, and a few things to disappoint. The characters and events are simply too familiar and the ground too well trodden to evoke much surprise or wonder. Still, it sure is nice to look at.