To paraphrase the lady in question, it is a truth universally acknowledged that any writer in possession of a literary fortune must be in want of a film that fictionalizes and romanticizes their early life. The Bard of Avon got the treatment with Shakespeare in Love; Hemingway, with In Love in War. In Becoming Jane, Jane Austen gets her turn, with Anne Hathaway (The Princess Diaries, The Devil Wears Prada) playing the lead in a portrait of the artist as a young woman -- and depicting her life as having the same mix of passion and restraint found in her novels. Austen's six novels have long been loved by moviemakers -- there have been more adaptations of Pride and Prejudice than you can shake a petticoat at, and an army of Emmas have made their way across the silver screen. Directed by Julian Jarrold -- whose last film, Kinky Boots, was a different take on the battle between the desires of the heart and the constraints of Englishness -- Becoming Jane is a warm and charming romantic drama. And, considering that the average moviegoer knows of Austen's work far better than they know of her life-- and, if they know her work at all, they know it through filmed adaptations of the novels as opposed to the novels themselves -- the odds are far better that audiences will be charmed, as opposed to offended, by its inventions.
Becoming Jane begins in 1790s Hampshire, cutting between the wet, loamy woods and the Austen household. The Austens are a large and loving family -- but achingly poor. The only asset they have to increase their fortunes, it seems, is Jane's hand in marriage; marrying off their youngest daughter to a man of means would mean salvation for the entire family. Jane would rather marry in the name of love -- or at the least in the name of affection, but, to quote another independent-minded, artistic woman -- Cindy Lauper -- "Money changes everything." Jane is the uneasy focus of the attentions of Mr. Wisely (Laurence Fox), whose aunt Lady Gresham (Maggie Smith) is a lady of means and a rather mean lady. But then, a friend of the family, Mr. Lefroy (James MacAvoy), visits Hampshire. Lefroy's studying law in London; he's a dissipated free-spirit whose personality is as large and unruly as his sideburns. He finds Jane and her writings provincial and quaint, just as she finds his London airs coarse and presumptuous. The two meet, squabble and simmer -- which, in time-honored romantic comedy tradition (a tradition which, let's not forget, Austen herself helped define), means they're nuts about each other.
But Lefroy is not a man of means; he's dependent on his uncle for his education, which will support his sprawling family back in Ireland. And if Becoming Jane is honest about anything, it's the blunt fact that in 18th-century England, a single woman was a commodity for her family -- a source of income, an asset, offered for sale like a rump roast in a dress. Jane's mother (Julie Walters) puts the priorities of marriage in bleak perspective: "Affection is desirable. Money is absolutely indispensable!" Jane knows what she has to do; what she wants to do is another matter entirely.
And, even more than she wants affection, Jane wants to write. Screenwriters Kevin Wood and Sarah Williams depict Austen's literary bent through dialog showing both a facility for and love of language: Bolstering the spirits of her sister Cassandra (Anna Maxwell martin) before a dinner party with Cassandra's fiancée, Jane says "His heart will stop at the sight of you or he doesn't deserve to live ... and yes, I am aware of the contradictions embodied in that sentence." Later, relating her frustrations with Lefroy in a letter, she reels off how he is " .. the most disagreeable ... insufferable and impertinent of men ..." before pausing to self-edit: "Too many adjectives."
Hathaway's charming as the young Austen, even if Hathaway as Austen might be a bit of a stretch physically -- Hathaway's skin is porcelain, her eyes aglow, her bee-stung lips luminous and her hair atumble in a spill of raven-dark curls, while the only known portrait of Austen depicts a vaguely-disgruntled looking woman of unassuming demeanor. MacAvoy continues his string of good-hearted but mildly disreputable roles -- from The Chronicles of Narnia to The Last King of Scotland, MacAvoy's constantly playing charming men who know they're letting you down, and Lefroy is just one more pearl in the string. The supporting cast -- including Julie Waters and James Cromwell as Austen's parents and the always-wonderful Smith as the icy, imperious Lady Gresham-- all bring warmth and life to their smaller parts.
I felt curiously conflicted watching Becoming Jane -- now and then, it felt a little retrograde, turning Austen from a author defined by her work into a woman defined by men. Does suggesting that Austen had to suffer at love to depict its buffets and blows in her work -- as if she had to dip her pen in the reservoir of a broken heart before she could truly write -- humanize her as a writer, or diminish her capacity for imagination and fiction? Becoming Jane feels like glossy, whimsical wrapping paper over the Austen canon, a bright and colorful package offered in the hope that you might not be underwhelmed by the fact that mere books are contained within.
Becoming Jane suggests that Austen's life was full of the same things as her fiction -- meddling Aunts and Uncles, suitors who either have money but fail to stir the blood or warm the heart in spite of their lack of resources, tenderly-caring sisters, moments where lifetimes of repression give way to pent-up feelings like a dam cracking under stress. If Becoming Jane's warmly-crafted and well-intentioned take on its subject's life sends you back to your well-loved DVD copies of Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility, then that's all to the good -- and if it should send you back to Austen's novels, even better.