“Becoming Jane” (Julian Jarrold) is unlike the conventional biographical film that charts the trajectory of the subject’s lifespan or examines a facet of the private self. It is neither “Elizabeth” (Shekhar Kapur, 1998), “Sylvia” (Christine Jeffs, 2003), nor “The Queen” (Stephen Frears, 2006). Though based on a period of time in novelist Jane Austen’s life, “Becoming Jane” blends elements of fact and extrapolation, evocative of “Shakespeare In Love” (John Madden, 1998).* According to the film’s official site, “Becoming Jane” “spins the few known facts surrounding Austen’s real-life flirtation with the Irish lawyer, Tom Lefroy, into a tale…that could have inspired Jane to…” adopt a certain point of view on love and human nature and to incorporate it into her novels.
When I had first heard that Anne Hathaway would play Jane Austen in “Becoming Jane,” I shook my head for two reasons: 1). The accent! and 2). She’s too happy (straight-to-video “Havoc” notwithstanding). After approximately fifteen minutes into the film, however, I forgot about the accent and realized that Anne’s exuberance and dramatic range are fitting for this portrayal of the celebrated literary figure.
Jarrold’s film is comprised of imagined sequences surrounding Jane’s “first” love—or declaration of self-agency in affairs of marriage—that unfold over an interval of months. “Becoming Jane” introduces the title character as a young woman possessing evident literary talent, independence of mind, and somewhat misfit ways. Her older sister Cassandra (Anna Maxwell Martin) is already spoken for, prompting Reverend (James Cromwell) and Mrs. Austen (Julie Walters) to worry about Jane’s future. Along come Lady Gresham (Maggie Smith) and her engagement-seeking nephew, Mr. Wisely (Laurence Fox). Mrs. Austen is overjoyed, but Jane is reluctant to agree to a proposal based solely on convenience rather than genuine affection and is willing to risk poverty and life as a spinster. The film quickly reveals that the only match for her indomitable spirit is the roguish Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy), who abruptly enters her life one day, disrupting and transforming her inner world.
Their relationship begins with a clash of egos, but mutual admiration soon emerges, igniting a passionate love despite an impossible situation imposed upon them by the sum total of rigid social proprieties, secret betrayals, and family agendas. For example, Tom’s uncle and benefactor, Judge Langlois (Ian Richardson), has only economic considerations in mind and disapproves of the prospect of a union between Tom and Jane. Lady Gresham, on behalf of Mr. Wisely, is steadfast in her pursuit of Miss Austen’s acceptance of her nephew. Meanwhile, Jane’s older brother Henry (Joe Anderson) is free to romance their wealthier and older cousin, Countess Eliza De Feuillide (Lucy Cohu), sans scandal.
The pressures and injustices Miss Austen endures are echoed in the characters and themes of her novels. Anyone who has read her works or seen film and TV adaptations will be able to spot her sources of inspiration for classics such as Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Sense & Sensibility. Ardent fans of Jane Austen novels may be turned off by the approach that the screenwriters Kevin Hood and Sarah Williams and the director take in conjuring the novelist’s life on screen and may prefer a more traditional biopic treatment. As the Jane Austen Society of North America and the Jane Austen Society of the United Kingdom indicate, there is documented information on the authoress regarding her family, how she spent her childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, and which houses she has inhabited. What is not known in greater detail or at all concerns the artistic and creative impetuses that influenced her writing.
“Becoming Jane” is not about historical accuracy—it is, as the characters from “The History Boys” (Nicholas Hytner, 2006) would call it, “subjunctive history.” What if…..
Three Facts about Jane Austen
1. Austen lived from 1775 to 1817.
2. She was the youngest of seven children (five brothers and one sister).
3. Writing was a life-long activity. She wrote manuscripts of what would become Sense & Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice in the 1790s, but it wasn’t until 1811 that the former would be published (under the pseudonym “a Lady”).
*Anne Hathaway even describes the “Becoming Jane” as “the Shakespeare In Love version of Jane Austen’s life” in the September 2007 issue of Teen Vogue magazine.