Becoming Jane

Becoming Jane

**1/2

Reviewed by: Chris

A film about Jane Austen, one of the greatest writers of English literature, will garner expectation and hope, especially with a cascade of newly discovered stars (James McAvoy, Anne Hathaway) and well established actors (Julie Walters, Maggie Smith, James Cromwell). That it focuses on her life before she became an author certainly did not dull my appetite.

The 22-year-old Austen is played by the very pretty Hathaway, who you'll know from Brokeback Mountain and The Devil Wears Prada. We meet her family when her older sister is married. The cash strapped parents (Cromwell and Walters) have the pressing problem of finding a husband for Jane, who promptly rejects the stuck-up relative of wealthy Lady Gresham (Smith).

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Let's meet Tom Lefroy (McAvoy). He's a penniless, charming, intelligent, apprentice lawyer. He also loves boxing, drinking and the fairer sex. These latter hobbies, mind you, do not endear him to his uncle, the imperious Judge Langlois, who sentences him to a summer in Hampshire as punishment. In a rustic backdrop of dancing and matchmaking, Jane and Tom develop a teasing, flirtatious rapport. Unlike the other men in her life, he presents her with intellectual company as well as dashing good looks and a flair for the odd chat-up. As they grow more serious about each other, they become equally aware of how doomed their relationship is. But Tom has given Jane something she needs, the knowledge of the heart that will impassion her writing.

Firstly be warned. If you are expecting a nice, feelgood movie, don't bother. This made me thoroughly miserable. Not just because a poignant lonely destiny is too much to bear, but because it's a wasted opportunity to bring a great life to the screen and there is little to convince that this bland and photogenic girl has much between her ears. The occasionally erudite line sounds leaden and false, while Hathaway’s body language, meant to portray a rebel, seems a bit anachronistic. Although she looks resplendent, dashing across the hills in a billowing red dress to watch the lads skinny dipping, the film is a sad disappointment in the development of Hathaway's otherwise promising career. Kate Winslet, or Natalie Portman (who were also considered for the role), might well have fared better. They have a depth and experience that could have compensated for this clunky script. Smith and the others are reduced to ciphers and appear little more than icing on a badly made cake.

On the other hand, McAvoy (fresh from The Last King Of Scotland) is a revelation. In what seems like a flash of brilliance in the generally myopic casting, he shines in every scene. A talented actor, he also brings his skills in boxing and sport to imbue Lefroy with vibrancy and charisma. It is when he works his seductive charms on Jane that he also brings out the best in his co-star. After her first adult kiss, Jane trembles, wondering if she has done it well. Hathaway does gooey-eyed emotion much better than persuading us she is a genius about to happen. The film gathers pace as we are drawn into an emotional cat-and-mouse. Jane's “experience of the heart” that will inspire her is one of the best things about the film, second only to the large and constantly moist dollops of budget-saving Irish countryside.

Austen is one of the most influential and revered novelists of the early 19th century and her social commentary is marked with a strong sense of irony. Devotees will no doubt enjoy scenes, such as the one where she corrects Tom's uncle on the definition of the word “irony.” But the transition from girlishness to mastery with words is so contrived that it could almost be two parallel scripts.

There are many that will love Becoming Jane, in spite of its imperfections. The rest might wish it had been told better.

Reviewed on: 14 Feb 2007
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A young Jane Austen learns the rules of the marriage game before her pen displays a pride in its prejudice.
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The Exile ***1/2

Director: Julian Jarrold

Writer: Kevin Hood, Sarah Williams

Starring: Anne Hathaway, James McAvoy, James Cromwell, Ian Richardson, Maggie Smith, Julie Walters, Helen McCrory, Joe Anderson, Laurence Fox, Anna Maxwell Martin, Jessica Ashworth

Year: 2007

Runtime: 120 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: UK/USA

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