Thursday, August 28, 2008

Film Review: Becoming Jane

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Becoming Jane, a fanciful treatment of the life of the young Jane Austen, is an entertaining little movie. It's not on the level of Shakespeare in Love, whose lead it is obviously following. It doesn't have that film's sophistication, to say nothing of its wit. But Becoming Jane is solidly written and handsomely produced, and the director, Julian Jarrold, keeps it moving at a brisk pace. It's a kitsch treatment of Austen and her work, but it's extremely well-made, and it certainly holds one's attention.

The idea behind the film was to interpret Austen's life in the terms of one of her magnificent romantic-comedy novels. We don't know much about Austen's life, and even less about its romantic side--she never married--but her letters contain references to a flirtation when she was 20 with the young Thomas Langlois Lefroy, a future Parliament member and judge. She completed her early drafts of Pride and Prejudice a couple of years afterward, so the screenwriters, Kevin Hood and Sarah Johnson, concoct an Austen-style relationship between her and Lefroy. Hood and Johnson couldn't end the story in the manner of Austen's novels--Austen and Lefroy went their separate ways before marrying--so they substitute Austen's embarking on her career. Along the way, we see the young lovers whose attraction to each other increases the more they push the other away, the complications to their relationship caused by family obligations, and observations into the social mores of late-18th century England. The film's only serious misstep is its epilogue, which tramples all over the known facts of Austen's life in the service of a hackneyed, sentimental ending.

Austen is played by Anne Hathaway, who's a surprising choice for the role, and not just because she's American. The film's Austen is arrogant and rude a fair amount of the time, and Hathaway's specialty in her other roles has been to smile, be charming, and otherwise ingratiate herself with the audience. When she's been called on to do something other than that, as she was in her later scenes in Brokeback Mountain, the energy drains out of her, and she becomes a cipher on the screen. It's clear Hathaway isn't up to some of the technical challenges of playing the film's Austen. The accent she affects doesn't match any of the other actors (not even fellow American James Cromwell, who plays Austen's father), and she has trouble with several of her line readings. The screenwriters chose to have Austen talk in the manner of her prose, and Hathaway turns the long, clause-heavy sentences into tongue-twisters. She has trouble pacing her delivery of the more complicated lines, and on the occasions when she pulls it off comfortably, she can't muster any conviction behind the words. Either way, the lines just hang in the air, stilted and unnatural.

Hathaway has a great camera face, and she uses it far more expressively than she has in her earlier roles. The contrast of the ebony hair and eyes with the alabaster skin draws one's attention right away. In her previous work, Hathaway has relied on the easy rapport her features grant her with audiences in order to charm them. It's often made her an enjoyable presence in films, but it's also made her come across like a piece of fluff--she seems to avoid any opportunity for dynamism in her characterizations. But in Becoming Jane, one never catches her falling back on her charm. She maintains some emotional distance from the audience, and the tension it creates is striking. Hathaway's line readings may falter, but her facial expressions leave no doubt about Jane's feelings, and her timing with regard to them never goes slack. It's her most compelling performance to date.

Hathaway's Jane rarely seems relaxed, and the contrast with James McAvoy's easy presence as Lefroy results in a terrific chemistry between the two. The film's Lefroy is a happy-go-lucky rake when we first meet him, and McAvoy does a seemingly effortless job of embodying the character. One can immediately feel the joy Lefroy takes in his antics, and the further joy he takes in taunting Jane with them. As the film progresses, McAvoy's shifts from flirtatiousness to love to romantic loss are remarkably fluid; he takes what at first seems like a stock bad-boy role, and he provides the emotional depth to make the different sides of the character wholly believable as they're revealed.

One wishes Julian Jarrold had been able to bring out the other performances to better effect. Apart from Hathaway and McAvoy, the only actor to make a strong impression is the late Ian Richardson, who plays Judge Langlois, Lefroy's uncle and benefactor. Jarrold has gathered some first-rate performers, including James Cromwell, Julie Walters, and Maggie Smith, but he doesn't give them much of anything to do.

The screenplay has some problems as well. Jane's resentment over the status of women in her society is too modern and blunt to be believable. One can sense these frustrations in Elizabeth Bennet and the other women characters in Austen's novels, but it's usually more subtle and far less overtly angry. There's also a lack of sensitivity to the mores of the period. Jarrold and his writers apparently wanted to portray Jane as a New-Woman Gibson Girl a century before their time: she's strong-willed, independent-minded, and she's even good at men's sports. However, no woman of Jane's class would ever behave as insolently as Jane does towards Judge Langlois in a dinner scene with him, Lefroy, and others. She would certainly know better than to act like that when she was seeking the judge's favor. And as noted above, the epilogue is poorly conceived, and some key plot points aren't properly developed: a background character proposes to Jane late in the film. It's revealed that he's taken drastic action to disrupt her relationship with Lefroy, but there's been no indication that he's had any interest in Jane up to that point. One also wishes the writers had been able to include something of the wonderful sense of irony that drives Austen's novels.

But these shortcomings are trifling. The central story of Jane's relationship with Lefroy always stays on track. Quite remarkably, Jarrold includes many aspects of late 18th-century life that are extraneous to one degree or another, but he never loses the story's momentum. He also knows how to emphasize the picturesque elegance of Eigil Bryld's cinematography without getting bogged down in the imagery. The work of the technical crew, from the production design to the costumes to the editing, is first-rate. Becoming Jane isn't a great film, but it has its pleasures, and one won't feel the two-hour running time has been wasted. Sometimes, that's all a film needs to be.

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