A sweet, but flawed imagination of the romance that could have inspired novelist Jane Austen.
How did Jane Austen get so knowledgeable about the affairs of the human heart if she never married? That's the question behind Becoming Jane, a romantic costume dramedy by screenwriters Kevin Hood and Sarah Williams that imagines a romance that could have made her the writer she ultimately became.
Like many of Austen's novels, Becoming Jane follows a young Austen herself, at the age when her family's primary concern is getting her and her sister married off to men of sufficient means. Austen (played by Anne Hathaway), however, is more interested in doing things her own way--marrying for love with the rakish Irish lawyer Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy) and, scandal of all scandals, living by her pen. Unfortunately, Lefroy (considered by many to be the inspiration for Pride and Prejudice's Mr. Darcy) is financially dependent on his uncle, and in 18th century England, if Uncle Moneybags doesn't approve of the match, they may wind up both poor and socially outcast.
Becoming Jane has a lot going for it. I'm desperately in love with James McAvoy (Starter for Ten, The Last King of Scotland), and Anne Hathaway (The Devil Wears Prada, Brokeback Mountain) can't escape her innate likeability. I dig period pieces and romances, and am especially partial to theorizing about what biographical experiences inspire great writers. Plus, I have an undergraduate and a graduate degree in English Literature. So, it should come as no surprise that by and large I liked this movie.
Unlike another (admittedly more accurate) British historical period piece from the past year, Amazing Grace, Becoming Jane handled its genre well. Director Julian Jarrold (Kinky Boots) struck a unique and lovely tone, managing to maintain a conventional Merchant-Ivory type look but successfully infusing it with some rather modern humor--Hathaway and McAvoy verbally sparring like an 18th century Tracy and Hepburn. At times, Jarrold opts for a hand-held camera, which gives the movie a more personal feel than the usual BBC costume dramas and resultantly makes you feel more invested.
Becoming Jane definitely has its flaws. Most notably, the script is overly ambitious, devoting way too much energy to its B plots and not enough to streamlining itself. As a result the movie feels long and ponderous. In short, Shakespeare in Love it is not. But it is sweet and well-meaning, and that was enough for me.