It is never a good idea to get your history from a film. They very writing of history possesses an intrinsic bias; history is written by the winners. This removal from the actual facts is greatly enhanced when moved to the movies. The best you can hope for is for the film to at least capture the essence of the people and times presented. This is the fundamental problem with the latest bio-pic ‘Becoming Jane’. The film is a fictionalize account of the early life of noted British author, Jane Austen. Novels like ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘Sense and Sensibility’ she is one of the defining influences on traditional romance literature. While the veracity of this movie is in serious doubt it is only fitting that Ms. Austen be the subject of a romantic period piece. Like many so called period pieces much has been updated to be more familiar to the audience. There is such a radical difference between what was considered proper for someone living in the 1700s and what is acceptable today. Let’s face it; even the mildest exploits of any of the pop-tarts in the tabloids now would have resulted in public stoning back then. ‘Becoming Jane’ is not so much a biography as it is an extrapolation of what made Austen the writer she was. It filters her early life through the filter of her works. The basic premise is for a woman, especially one in the 1700s to write such romantic novels her life had to include passion and heartbreak.
The basis of the film’s story is the Jon Spence's biography "Becoming Jane Austen". He hypothesized that Austen had fallen in love with an Irish law student named Tom Lefroy. The facts are the real Austen did fall in love with LeFroy when she was twenty one years old. Apparently his family was not thrilled with the idea of a union between the two and acted to separate the young lovers. Wealth was at the center as was the influence of the only relative of LeFroy who had any. The two were successfully broken up. The idea that this was the catalyst for her later works is plausible but it does negate much of the social pressures that any woman was under back then. Much of Austen’s works are concerned with a young woman trying to balance love with the familiar pressures of finding a suitable husband. This may have been reinforced by her personal experience with LeFroy but it was the prevalent attitude of the day.
Transferring this tale to the screen are two writers; Kevin Hood and Sarah Williams. Hood has most of his experience with British television; this is his first screenplay for a feature length film. He did pen several episode of the UK high school drama ‘Grange Hill’ and a case could be made that this relates in many ways to the tight cliques present in the British society of the late 1700s. This is also the first film screenplay for Williams. Together they provide a script that gives the superficial appearance of the period. If you look too deeply you will realize that the characters are infusing much of our own modern attitudes than keeping true to the time. They also seem to be trying to make the characters in this film cut from the exact same cloth as the corresponding ones in Austen’s novels. Jane’s parents act in every way like the parent’s in ‘Pride and Prejudice’ right down to the slightest nuance. The script ultimately comes across as an effort to create a previously unknown Austen novel. Instead the result could have been achieved by taking the pages from Austen’s works, dropping them on the floor and handing what you scoop up to the cast.
At least the director, Julian Jarrold, has some experience in films like this. Like his writing staff he has most of his experience in British television. The difference is he worked at the helm of some made for TV movies such as ‘Crime and Punishment’ and ‘Great Expectations’. This gave him the leg up for a romantic drama that is sweeping in scope. He paces the work well allowing sufficient time for the all important character development. As with any romance it is vital to become emotionally invested with the characters and Jarrold builds the relationships organically.
Jane Austen (Anne Hathaway) is the daughter of the reverend Austen (James Cromwell) and Mrs. Austen (Julie Walters). I don’t think parents were permitted to reveal their first names to their children back then, bad form or something. Jane aspires to become a writer, to earn a living with her pen as she puts it. This is shocking at a time when the future of a genteel young woman was becoming a wife and mother, in that order only. Rev. Austen is proud of his daughter’s ambitions and encourages her to write. This is a point of disagreement since the more traditional Mrs. Austen wants her daughter to find an acceptable husband immediately. She is twenty one years old with little or no prospects, shocking. This is not easy since the Austen family is not wealthy. While it is socially acceptable for a man of the cloth to be poorer than his neighbors it does not help in catching a mate. Still, Jane is beautiful and there are some potential suitors. One is the nephew of her neighbor Lady Gresham (Maggie Smith), Mr. Wisley (Laurence Fox). They meet but Jane is certain he will not do. Then Jane meets Mr. Darcy, I mean Thomas Lefroy (James McAvoy). He is from a well established family and is becoming a barrister so he would be able to provide nicely for Jane. Initially they don’t get alone. She thinks he is too arrogant while he feels she is too independent and head strong. Eventually they fall in love; this is a romance after all so there is little surprise there. The only catch is his family disapproves of the lack of wealth the Austen family has. Thomas implores the man with control of the family money, Judge Langlois (Laurence Fox), but the Judge feels that Thomas can do better. If he marries Jane he will be cut off. Since this affects Thomas’ immediate family he has to leave Jane.
The performance given by Anne Hathaway goes a long way to making this film work. After her tween phase with such things as two ‘The Princess Diaries’ movies and ‘Ella Enchanted’ and her wild and equally awful flick ‘Havoc’, Hathaway is finally settling down to more dramatic and mature roles. She does her best to play Jane as a woman of the period but the film forces too many modern affectations on her presentation. Hathaway sells the role with her acting ability and her charm.
The film is released on DVD by Buena Vista through their more grown up division, Miramax. As always they do a great job with the disc. The anamorphic 2.35:1 video is stunning. The colors are bright but never over power the scene. The Dolby 5.1 audio gives a realistic surround sound that fills the room. There is a commentary track with director Julian Jarrold, writer Kevin Hood and producer Robert Bernstein. There is an optional popup video trivia track for facts and footnotes of the production. The main featurette is ‘Discovering Jane Austen’ that details the life of the real woman. There is also the usual addition of deleted scenes. If you can separate fact from fiction and are a die hard fan of period romance stories this is just right for you.