Review: The only portrait I ever saw of Jane Austen appears on countless spines of the Modern Library edition of “Pride and Prejudice.” Drawn by her sister Cassandra, Jane looks, well, like one would expect the witty Miss Austen to look: poised, civilized, reflective and intelligent. With some imagination and forgiveness with regard to the talent of the artist, she could even be conceived as pretty with her large dark eyes and ringlet fringe peeking out from the typical gentlewoman’s cap of that time period. How ingenious for Hollywood to cast the sumptuous Anne Hathaway with her silky brown hair, curvaceous figure, deer-in-the-headlights eyes and perfect lips as the young burgeoning author? Let’s face it—no one wants to be a plain Jane – and plain she is not–she’s pretty much got it all: not only is she innocently stunning, she’s independent, wants to work, exhibits impeccable manners, loves her family, acts upon noble ideals all of which along with her cricket skills results in attracting and snaring the deliciously boyish James McAvoy ( Last King of Scotland) as supposed ill-fated lover, Tom Lefroy.
As a film, all of this romanticism works wonderfully. The verdant countryside shimmers in the sunshine. The period clothing—all empire waists, beribboned hair, top hats and velvet frockcoats—-sway and rustle delightfully as the couples dance and speak in clever well-mannered innuendo as expectant matchmaking parents play chaperone and contemplate lucrative alliances that will set their children up for life. The dialogue sufficiently reflects that Austenian repartee which the educated audience delights in as it makes them feel they are on an even keel with one of the greatest satirists in the English language. The notion of Austin’s relationship with Lefroy as presented first in Jon Spence’s biography from which the film gets its name, suggests that many of Austin’s dream partnerships as presented in her novels were based on actual, personal and emotional incidents that although painful, gave her characters so much flesh and blood poignancy, we still discuss them today.
Whether or not any of this is actually true matters naught. The film seduces with the same charming intensity of McAvoy’s blue-eyed stare as he quite openly undresses Hathaway in his mind. Is Lefroy the basis for Mr. Darcy? This is difficult to say, but I wouldn’t mind bumping into this film’s Tom Lefroy while I was taking my daily constitutional. Of course, I’d have to go back in time to become a few years younger—or perhaps not as flirty cousin Eliza de Feuillide certainly does have her way with Jane’s rakish brother, Henry Austen (Joe Anderson)—oh, what money can buy!
With that in mind, leave the historical authenticity to the Austen scholars and enjoy the film for its performances and its visual delights. Secondary players congregate to form a veritable Austen menagerie of characters that for the most part plays a bit too conveniently to reflect reality. But take it all in fun —the film leads one to believe that Austen needed little imagination to conceptualize her personalities; rather they were all there under her nose, just waiting to be captured on paper. Nevertheless, Maggie Smith as the formidable Lady Gresham never fails to elicit a chuckle as does her fictional counterpart Lady Catherine de Bourgh from “Pride and Prejudice.” Julie Walters and James Cromwell as Jane’s parents seem the perfect Mr. and Mrs Bennett clones while Laurence Fox, as Mr. Wisley (Mr. Collins again from “Pride and Prejudice”) interjects just the right 21st century computer geek persona to the mix to act the perfect foil for the more glamorous but definitely shallower Tom Lefroy character.
Bottom line: After countless Masterpiece Theatre adaptations of all six of Jane Austen’s novels as well as a herd of popular films set to popular music (Bride and Prejudice was one Bollywood version) it is not surprising that the author herself has come into scrutiny in this charming albeit fictionalized biopic. If you are not tired of yet another Darcy/Bennett rendition, you will most likely find “Becoming Jane” two hours worth of Jane Austen’s world lovingly preserved. Recommended.