Period pieces. These are the hardest movies to review. Depending on the time frame they’re portraying, they need to remain true to the past — there isn’t a lot of room for error or creative liberties. And depending on the type of movie (biography, historical event) they tend to get long winded and boring. Becoming Jane falls headfirst into that problem: it’s a biography about Jane Austen — a person I care little about; set in the 1700’s — a time period I care even less for.
Becoming Jane is a fictional biography of Jane Austen put forth by writers Kevin Hood and Sarah Williams. Out of many possibilities (very little is known about her life), I suspect this is the closest, as it is based on a few surviving notes penned by Ms. Austen and lends some credence into her acclaimed novel Pride and Prejudice. It is meant to showcase how and why the choices Austen made, or had made for her, molded her into the great novelist many believe she is. Mostly it is movie for die-hard lovers of Jane Austen or women seeking inspiration for either independence or true love.
Anne Hathaway plays the 20-something Jane as she is growing up at her family home in the country. The household consists of her parents Reverend and Mrs. Austen (James Cromwell and Julie Walters, respectively), her sister Cassandra (Anna Maxwell Martin) and her brother Henry (Joe Anderson). They have meager belongings and Jane is expected to marry for status, as her sister is doing. Yet the only suitor for her is Mr. Wisley (Laurence Fox), a nondescript and boring gentleman that Jane finds no interest in. Instead, she becomes smitten with a dashing young man from the city, named Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy), who has been sent to live in the country by his tyrannical uncle (Ian Richardson). The bulk of the movie is then centered squarely on their interactions – midnight trysts, sneaky flirts and the breaking of norms set by their families and society.
Mostly director Julian Jarrold does an adequate job spinning the story and capturing the feel of the late 18th century. The story is told in a cause and effect linear fashion; each experience felt by Austen creates a new wrinkle in her actions – some for the better, some for the worse. The problem with Becoming Jane is two-fold. First, I wasn’t moved into believing there existed a burning love between Austen and Lefroy. Without that connection, I couldn’t care one way or another about the outcome. Secondly, Ann Hathaway who was magnificent in The Devil Wears Prada falls short of capturing the persona I would expect from such a strong willed woman. Her doe-eyed looks detract from the overall portrayal, even though she manages the accent and mannerisms of her locale and period quite well. The lone saviors of the film are the costume and set designers. The look, feel and mood of this snippet in time is captured faithfully. Without the realism offered up by their handiwork, this movie would have been all the more painful to watch.
For a person, such as myself, with little knowledge of Jane Austen, it was relatively interesting to contemplate how the experiences realized by Jane affected what she ended up writing. Granted, I wasn’t overly impressed with the product, but on some level it made me think of some questions as the credits rolled. If the characters in her flagship work Pride and Prejudice (Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy) were merely representations of her and Tom Lefroy, would her stories have turned out differently if she were to have married him? Would she have become a great novelist at all if any one of the assumptions made were different?
If the purpose of Becoming Jane is to challenge the viewer, then I suppose it succeeds. Otherwise, based purely on entertainment value, you’d have more fun watching paint dry.