Becoming Jane Review
To those wishing to know whether this biopic is as engaging as the adaptations of her work, the answer is much like her life: whilst Austen herself led a fairly anaemic existence, never marrying and dying young, her literary creations greatly surpassed her personal achievements. And with this parallel in mind, Becoming Jane is the window through which you should view the recent cinematic adaptations of Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, although this reviewer is quick to add that this biopic is immensely entertaining and, least of all, it possesses buckets of charm.
Whilst some Austen purists will be shocked to see an American actress taking on such a well-loved character, Anne Hathaway embodies the novelist with a mixture of endearing reticence and, occasionally, moments which suggest she can be a firebrand when it's called for. This attempt to dispel the traditional viewpoint that Austen was little more than a haughty, prim and proper lady with no lust for life will relieve audiences and those who love her work – after all, considering her work was so full of irony, humour and passion, it seems entirely appropriate that the woman herself was, at times, as intriguing as her characters.
As a film, Becoming Jane falls under the well-trodden category of "Sunday entertainment", not because it is stifled by period excesses or a who's who of British theatrical talent, but as a result of the film's tendency to offer lighthearted moments of drama, a technique which seems to challenge the viewer to go and explore the world of Austen for themselves. In other words, this film is a taster, the hors d'oeuvre that does not require too much attention – just sit back and wallow in the warm colours, the charming period setting and the amiable cast.
Julian Jarrold's direction is interesting for a number of reasons, most notably for the elements of poetic license that he draws from the story of Austen's life. The film, as the title suggests, is concerned with the time immediately before she became a popular novelist (a profession that many in society would have looked on with some disdain) and the perceived romance with Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy) which many have suggested became her romantic inspiration in terms of her literary output. According to Jarrold's film, it certainly bears all the hallmarks of a typical literary courtship: slightly stifled with unarticulated sexual tension striking the protagonists at the most inconvenient of times. And, unfortunately, whilst watching this film I couldn't shake the feeling that this was Pride & Prejudice Lite, a lower budget rerun of Joe Wright's sumptuous adaptation of the aforementioned novel. From the shots of wide-open vistas to the similarities between the Austen family and the Bennets, Becoming Jane is a retread: but one with a more original climax, something which was no doubt the product of the uncertainty surrounding the relationship between Austen and Lefroy.
However, discounting the film's roots in real life, I cannot find much fault with its execution as a warm love story and period drama. Yes, it is slightly superficial and there are moments that verge on caricature, but for the most part it is refreshing and enjoyable. Jarrold directs with an energy that belies the genre conventions of static cameras and unnatural polish, instead wishing to bring a more grounded look to the film which complements the story's modest origins. Furthermore, whilst it will read like a cliché, there really is something special about James McAvoy and I do wonder quite how far he will go in film – there is a palpable sense of electricity behind his bright Scottish eyes, a charm that cannot be falsified, and moments of emotional honesty in his performance that offer the British film industry a large dose of hope for the future…provided we don't lose him to Hollywood, of course.
And whilst she is not quite so compelling, Hathaway does a sterling job of carrying the film as a character that so many feel they know so much about. In fact, I can still remember the expression on her face – during one dancing sequence with McAvoy's Lefroy – when she captures that rising wave of paralysing love in Austen that must have catapulted the novelist through the writing process.
Becoming Jane is an delightful little film that, whilst narrow in scope and perhaps a little cavalier with the truth, will offer a large amount of enjoyment to families and literary enthusiasts alike. Whilst I prefer the recent cinematic adaptations of her work, mainly for their added depth, this certainly gets my recommendation.
The director admits that this film was relatively low budget, so it is pleasing to find a good DVD package to support it. Released in conjunction with BBC Films, English subtitles are provided during the main feature and the menus are tastefully and simply designed.
Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, the transfer is solid without being remarkable. There is a slight haziness to the image on very close inspection – perhaps a softness of focus or just a by-product of the film's lighting conditions – and the image is never strong enough to make you go "wow". Nevertheless, no digital artefacts could be spotted and aliasing seemed to be kept to a minimum. The 5.1 surround mix is clear, although the surround speakers are used very sparingly.
The main highlight is an informative audio commentary, whilst the behind-the-scenes featurette mixes footage with some talking head interviews from the key players. There is a bit too much back-slapping going on here for my liking, although the mini-featurettes on how the filmmakers crafted the boxing, cricket and dancing scenes are interesting – especially for aspiring directors or those who just want to know more about such historical practices.
Two more mini-featurettes on the film's make-up and costumes, respectively, are unremarkable, whilst a small handful of deleted scenes are more extended scenes than anything else. The theatrical trailer rounds off the disc's selection of extra material.
Warm, fresh and funny, Becoming Jane is a frothy and enjoyable romantic drama for the whole family. Austenphiles will surely get a kick out of the film as well, but first they must look past the presence of an American actress in the titular role – she's bloody good, really.