Director: Julian Jarrold / Script: Kevin Hood (incl. material from Austen’s letters) / Editing: Emma E. Hickox / DP: Eigil Bryld / Score: Adrian Johnston
Cast: Anne Hathaway / James McAvoy / Julie Walters / James Cromwell / Maggie Smith / Anna Maxwell Martin / Lucy Cohu / Lawrence Fox / Ian Richardson / Helen McCrory
Definition of (Cinematic) Drizzle…
Becoming Jane is the visual equivalent of a bottle of (flat) Diet Coke. There’s often more to get through, than you think… There’s neither fizz nor sugar to sweeten the deal. In fact, there’s only the taste and while that may be little more than vaguely familiar at the outset, it can never aspire to anything beyond ersatz.
Screenwriter Kevin Hood was long-steeped in the brew that is Jane Austen’s oeuvre, when something of a fever dream must’ve taken him in the night. As ideas go, that of looking into the ‘origin-story’ of one of the most influential & beloved writers in the English language, must’ve seemed appealing… Although there have been innumerable biographies of Ms. Austen, no-one had had the idea of dramatising the key, formative romance that had – according to the film – so dominated her interior landscape during her early twenties: with a young lawyer-in-training, one Tom Lefroy.
Emboldened by the notion, it’s little surprise that the wheels began turning for such a ‘high-concept’ script. What is surprising to learn however, is that in reality, Austen knew Lefroy for little more than a month and what ‘romance’ there might’ve been between them soon cooled. So, rather than be a ‘true account’, the film’s very premise is already straying from the path as advertised…
What Mr Hood has attempted then, is to show how Austen might have been inspired to write her break-though novel, Pride and Prejudice. The elements are all here, in his script. Austen is shown to be a wilful, independent young woman, intent on marrying for love, rather than the security of a country gent with means… There’s a local noblewoman with a surly, taciturn nephew, who’d fit the bill, but with whom Austen feels little or no empathy. Factor-in a loving, supportive family, chock-full of inspirational characters and that’s enough boxes ticked, I’d say.
Production was handled by BBC Films, naturally; the Corporation had an enviable track-record in translating Austen for the screen and this entry was no exception; no matter, that it came not from the canon: it’s too slight for a series in any case, so a feature seemed a good fit. I daresay the Beeb found its Director, too. Julian Jarrold had had a string of TV credits and one feature (Kinky Boots, 2005) under his belt and seemed a good (and affordable) bet for such material. Shooting would take place in the (oft-drizzly) Republic of Ireland, with just a few scenes in the UK; a result of tax-breaks, I’m guessing, rather than logistics; besides, it at least kept continuity on its toes…
Locations were scouted and dressed with care; one scene, showing a pond in front of Lady Gresham’s manor, all lit-up by lanterns was particularly striking. The wardrobe department had their usual fun with the period details and were able to re-use many dresses last seen in other Austen / Period adaptations, thus furthering the mythos. The film itself had a stellar cast; big names attracted to the watering hole, by the comfort-zone material as much as the prospect of a few weeks in the Emerald Isle.
It opens with Anne Hathaway as Austen, up early one Sunday morning, frustrated by her then-current writing and driven to play the pianoforte as a way of venting said frustration (I know how she feels). This duly wakes the household, giving us glimpses of her family. Hathaway makes the most of her part, I thought; clearly revelling in the opportunity to polish her cut-glass English accent and play someone with a winning naïveté towards the world. Hathaway is adored by the camera and perhaps for the first time in her career, we see it’s reciprocal; she’s not trying too hard, here. She’s letting her colleagues – and us – respond to her work freely.
Julie Walters and James Cromwell, as her parents, are both impeccably cast and appear content to ‘go through the motions’, such is their command of the material offered. Cromwell donates a care-worn impecunity to the upstanding, optimistic Reverend Austen and is balanced by Walters’ hard-nosed realism over Jane’s prospects. Also worthy of mention is the emotionally brittle Cassandra, Jane’s elder sister played with care by Anna Maxwell Martin; an actress not seen enough. Add-in to this set-up, the waspish Lady Gresham (the talismanic Maggie Smith) and her nephew, Mr Wisley (Lawrence Fox, in a thankless, underwritten role) and the elements I spoke of earlier, began to fall in-place.
No sooner has such bucolic harmony been established, than we’re off to London to be introduced to Tom Lefroy, a student of the Law and handy in a boxing match held, for no apparent reason, in a tavern (and handier with its female denizens, I’d wager). No matter: this is just so much visual window-dressing to sketch his character and ensure he’s despatched ‘to the country’ by his Uncle & benefactor Judge Langlois (the legend who was Ian Richardson, in his last film): no guesses as to what’s going to happen…
Kudos to James McAvoy, though. I think he knew what his portrayal would need in order to stand-out against the cloying, miasma surrounding Lefroy: he delivers a suitably robust, twinkle-eyed agent-of-chaos into the mix, that reminded me of a comment made by the late ‘bad-boy of Rock’ Michael Hutchence. When asked what his favourite hobby was, he replied: “Corrupting Kylie”; this at a time when he and Ms. Minogue were an item. Watch this film and it’s easy to imagine Lefroy giving the same answer… Not that I believe for a moment, his character’s ‘relationship’ with Jane.
For all of Hathaway’s gifts as an actress, she is wrestling with a script that places unrealistic goals and expectations onto her character’s shoulders, as if it’s ‘force-growing’ her into the icon she would become, like a stick of unseasonal rhubarb; anything to imbue Austen’s blank canvas with the ‘experience’ Mr Hart believes she will need, in order to fulfil her destiny. At one point, Austen enters into an elopement with the rogue Lefroy, only to call it off when she learns of the true extent of his future penury – likely to be worse, even, than her own dear father’s. So much for her talk about marrying for love, rather than financial security: if the script had stayed true to its principled intentions, she would’ve gone through with it! Then again, we’d be looking at a different subject entirely and at least this way, she gains first-hand experience of love frustrated…
My only quibble about McAvoy’s performance, is that although he’s described as hailing from ‘County Wexford’, he made no attempt at modifying his own Glaswegian burr. Then again, for a general, worldwide audience, who’d know and, more importantly, who’d care?
I won’t bore you with the rest of it. Instead, let’s consider my biggest complaint about the film: despite its promising title, I came away with little sense of Jane becoming JANE… It’s as though there’s a conflict at the film’s heart, between wanting to be a period drama OR a nuanced study of the writer’s journey. In the event, the former won-out, leaving Jane-the-Writer restricted to a few shots of her gazing out of windows, pen (not quill) in-hand, or scribbling down new ideas onto vellum. Where’s the context? A sense of the writer’s inner journey? It’s all well and good to show us the (largely fictional) romance that, we’re led to believe, shaped Austen’s world-view, but I wanted to see how it impacted her work. Shakespeare in Love (1997) managed to juggle a cinematic depiction of a working writer, with a budding romance and then show how one affects the other. Becoming Jane does not.
Yes, we see Austen visit the noted female author of the day (Helen McCrory as the bemused Mrs Radcliffe) but that’s about it, aside from the aforementioned window-gazing.
Jane Austen was a young woman barely out of her teens when she met Lefroy and largely innocent of the world. If her contact with him was as instrumental as it’s portrayed, in opening her eyes – and her heart – to a more authentic view of the world and the inner-workings of the human condition, it would’ve made for a stronger film had we been shown it, not had our knowledge assumed.
Instead, Mr Hood got his fever-dream made into a movie. The BBC added to its roster of costume dramas and everyone got paid. Beyond that, there’s little worth saying: but if this sort of thing floats your boat, you could do a lot better elsewhere… Try Lost in Austen (2008) for a better post-modern take on such material.
What is she doing?
[PAUSE] Can anything be done about it?