Jane Austen (1775-1817) has proven a boon to filmmakers over the past fifteen years or so; adaptations of her novels have represented virtually a cottage industry, one successful in terms of both quality and profit. But her output was lamentably small, and once all the books have been filmed—some multiple times—what do you do to keep the goose laying those golden eggs?
The answer provided by screenwriters Sarah Williams and Kevin Hood, and director Julian Jarrold, is simple: turn Jane Austen’s life into a new Jane Austen novel. If you have to play a bit fast and loose with the facts in doing so, what’s the harm?
That’s the rationale behind “Becoming Jane,” a period piece in which the young Jane, played by Anne Hathaway with a Gwyneth Paltrow accent, is the model for her own later creations, like Elizabeth Bennet of “Pride and Prejudice.” In this reconstruction, Jane is the free-spirited daughter of a cash-strapped rural rector (James Cromwell) and his status-conscious wife (Julie Walters)—a sort of liberated young woman before her time, and one with literary ambitions besides. Mom cultivates local noblewoman Lady Gresham (Maggie Smith) in the hopes of arranging a union between Jane and the wealthy woman’s ward and heir Wisley (Laurence Fox), a nice enough fellow though rather a stick.
But the willful daughter wants to wed for love, not money and position, and after a rocky “first impressions” meeting she falls for dashing, reckless Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy), an Irish relative of the Austens’ neighbors who’s come for a visit with them at the insistence of his imperious uncle Langlois (Ian Richardson). Langlois is a childless judge who’s made his nephew his heir but is intent on molding the youth into a responsible member of English society and considers the exile a way of removing him from the seductions of city life. Tom eventually reciprocates her feelings, and Jane turns down a proposal from Wisley, much to the distress of her mother and Lady Gresham; but can they overcome the snooty attitude of Langlois, who may disinherit Lefroy and thus doom his family back home to a life of not-so-genteel penury?
The writers of “Becoming Jane” are hamstrung in working out this simultaneously imaginative and imitative scenario by the facts of the real Austen’s life, which certainly include some sort of youthful dalliance with a Tom Lefroy but prevent them from providing a denouement as sweetly satisfying as those one finds in her books. (After all, she died without ever having married.) But otherwise they try to mimic the tone and incident of the novels as much as they can, offering a gallery of characters—not just those already mentioned but others like Jane’s sister Cassandra (Anna Maxwell Martin) and her betrothed, the clergyman Robert Fowle (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor); flighty young Lucy Lefroy (Jessica Ashworth), who’s also besotted with Tom; and a world-wise visiting French countess (Lucy Cohu), who’s escaped from the revolution back home and is searching for a man herself—that will be comfortably familiar to their readers.
In dressing the picture, the crew have also done their best to emulate the style and tone of the earlier Austen adaptations; Eve Stewart’s production design, David McHenry’s art direction, Johnny Byrne’s set decoration and Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh’s costumes, taken together, nicely recreate the world of early nineteenth-century England, and cinematographer Eigil Bryld, working in lush widescreen color, makes fine use of the eye-catching locations.
The cast works hard to capture the right mood, too. Hathaway shows a spunkiness that’s occasionally too modern, but makes a likable heroine nonetheless, and McAvoy and Fox perform all the right moves as her very different suitors. But the real joys of the movie are the turns by the veterans of this sort of thing—Walters’ garrulous, querulous mother, Cromwell’s Edward Bennet-like father, Smith’s hyper-arch Gresham, and especially the late Richardson’s supremely arrogant, letter-of-the-law judge. His ability to triumph over the kind of mediocre material he’s unhappily compelled to deliver here is a demonstration of how much he’ll be missed.
“Becoming Jane” will perhaps satisfy audiences still in withdrawal from the dearth of recent Austen adaptations on the screen. In the end, though, it inevitably exudes a sort of hand-me-down quality, the feeling of being a second-rate copy instead of a true original, at once too clever and not quite clever enough.