Last night a friend and I went to see Becoming Jane, a new movie starring Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen. The movie depicts, among other things, a fictionalized romance between Jane and a prepossessing young law student played by James McAvoy. I can think of maybe three reasons to make a film like this: 1) To play the always interesting game of “what if” with a beloved historical figure about whom little actual personal information is known. (Shakespeare in Love would be a prime example of this.) 2) To educate fans of Austen’s novels about her life and times, thereby giving the audience insights on what may have motivated her to write the way she did. 3) To answer the lust of your average 15-year-old Austen devotee, who has already seen all the movies of Austen’s novels and is desperately seeking new filmic fodder in the vein of Jane. Becoming Jane attempts, I think, to achieve the first two goals, but ultimately I found it more sympathetic to the last.
I should admit here and now that I’m a fairly rabid Austen fan myself: I’d rank her in my top three favorite authors of all time. One of the things that makes Austen such an enduring author is the delicious irony she displays in writing about the most domestic of worlds. She’s a master wit, and that’s a talent that’s hard to mimic. The filmmakers of Becoming Jane clearly get that irony is an important part of Austen’s legacy – the word is used over and over again in the film and becomes a major plot point – but for all their verbal references, there doesn’t seem to be much irony in the screenplay itself. None of the characters has much of an ability to laugh at themselves or their surroundings, and the sly caricatures for which Austen is known are sorely missing from the cast of the movie.
Speaking of the cast, it’s excellent – from James Cromwell and Julie Walters as Austen’s parents to Maggie Smith and Ian Richardson in key supporting roles, they’re all trying their hardest to inject some life into this story. James McAvoy, as Jane’s love interest, is surprisingly compelling, and gets better as the movie goes on. Even Hathaway, though she comes off a little to modern and American for my tastes – what, they couldn’t find a British actress for the role? – is doing her best. But frankly, the screenplay doesn’t give them much to work with. It ranges from plodding historicity – here is what the courts were like, here’s an example of a local fair, look! the pianos have black keys! – to gothic romance, complete with stolen kisses, rainy forest encounters, and broken hearts.
It’s not a bad movie, exactly. They just don’t seem to be having much fun. And the “insights” offered by the imagined romance aren’t exactly mindblowing. So: if you’re a 15-year-old worshipper of Austen who’s jonesing for a fix, I guess this is the movie for you. If you’re a devotee of the “what if” game, go read Stephanie Barron’s excellent series of murder mysteries starring Jane as the sleuth. (Really. They’re great.) If you want insight into Jane’s life and world, check out one of the many excellent biographies of her (including the book on which this movie is based), or read her collected letters.
Or, you know, just go read the books themselves. Or re-read them, if you’ve read them all already. For those of us who really love Jane, there’s nothing more satisfying than that.
UPDATE: just wanted to add – this review is part of the MotherTalk Blog Tour for the movie. You can check out the rest of the tour by clicking on the widget over to the right. (Seems I’m in the minority in my response to the movie. Hey, what do I know?)