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BECOMING JANE

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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.

ARCTIC TALE

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“Arctic Tale” may be a part of the new wave of theatrically-released documentaries, and as befitting a piece co-written by Al Gore’s daughter, it claims contemporary relevance by making much of the effects of global warming on the various species that inhabit the North Pole. But the picture from directors Adam Ravetch and Sarah Robertson seems more like a throwback to the Disney live-action nature pieces of the fifties, marked by overly cute narration, dubious musical choices, and an extreme tendency to anthropomorphism.

The film, shot under what must have been difficult conditions over a considerable period of time (six years, according to the press information), edits and arranges the footage to follow two young animals—a baby polar bear called Nanu and a baby walrus called Seela—as they’re taught by their elders to survive in the frigid and changing environment. Nanu initially has a brother, but a sad event intervenes to leave her and her mother alone in the wild. Seela, on the other hand, is part of a fairly large herd, chief among whom are her mother and a protective older walrus the narration christens as Auntie.

Some of the footage is quite instructive. The parts focusing on the older animals’ hunting tips to the newborn about stalking and catching their food are very interesting, and segments dealing with animals other than the bears and the walruses (like a fox that shadows the bears) are in some ways more engaging than the through-stories. And the warning about how the animals are being endangered by alterations in their habitat brought about by climate change and the diminution of the ice cover is certainly appropriate and will, perhaps, make an impression on viewers.

On the other hand, the effort to humanize the main “characters” goes much too far, and the narration is studded with turns of phrase likely to make you wince. It’s hard to maintain one’s composure when Queen Latifah—not the best choice of speaker under any circumstances—informs us at one point that Nanu is trapped “between a fox and a hard place,” merely the worst example of a tendency to bad punning and corny turns of phrase. The selection of background tunes is just as unfortunate. Inserting Kool & The Gang’s “Celebration” at one point and using Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” at another are the most egregious offenses, but there are others.

“Arctic Tale” also panders to the current fashion in family films to joke around with bodily functions. Have you ever seen a walrus farting? Well, an extended sequence here gives you the chance to listen to a whole chorus of them doing so.

In other words, the problem with the picture isn’t the footage that the makers have assembled: much of it is fascinating, and given the conditions under which it was collected, you have to admire their persistence and dedication. It’s the way it’s been tied together to make an overly cutesy, ludicrously anthropomorphic critter feature, even if it is in a good cause.

“Arctic Tale” comes with the imprimatur of National Geographic Productions, which is an indication of its good intentions and sound craftsmanship. Unfortunately, in this case it’s not a guarantee of the quality of the final result.