Since Jane Austen only wrote six books that have already been turned into movies and TV dramas ad naseum, filmmakers have to get creative to rip-off her work. They've already tried setting her novels in a Bollywood musical (the fun Bride and Prejudice), or in a Southern California high school (the fun Clueless). Now, some filmmakers are trying to milk Austen by making a fictional story starring Jane herself, the not-as-fun Becoming Jane.
Jane Austen has a passionate and loyal fan base. They are almost all women. I’m sure one of the twenty or so non-female fans of her books will pop up and try to claim that there are millions of men who love Pride and Prejudice or Emma, but it’s not true. Therefore, as a man, I’m not a Jane Austen fan, which means I’m also not the target audience for Becoming Jane.
Anne Hathaway, probably the most gorgeous and appealing young American actress today, plays the early 19th century writer in the period before she wrote her six famous novels. Supposing that there must have been real life events that were turned into plot points for her books, screenwriter Kevin Hood and director Julian Jarrold invent a love story for Jane with Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy.) Tom and Jane move through a fairly standard hate-him, love-him courtship much to the dismay of her parents (Julie Waters and James Cromwell.) They would prefer she marry the rich but bland Mr. Wisley (Laurence Fox.)
I won’t spoil the ending, but a quick perusal of Wikipedia will let you know that Austen died unmarried. The point of the film is to give Austin-ites a titter when something happens that they can tie to a specific scene in one of her books. Unfortunately, if you don’t know much about her books, or just the vague outlines of the plots, most of the references will probably go right over your head. There were a few that even I got, like when Jane’s mother, worried that Jane won’t accept Mr. Wisley’s offer of marriage, tells her husband, “you can persuade her.” Ahhhh, Persuasion must have sprang forth from that very moment! The more of these made-up inspirations for Austen’s book you can recognize, the more enjoyable the movie will be. Otherwise, it’s a fairly average English period romance.
Still, the filmmakers obviously are well versed in those Masterpiece Theater-ish English period romances. There are tons of beautiful scenery and costumes. The mostly English cast nails the period and manners of the time. Hathaway doesn’t do well on maintaining her accent (shades of Kevin Costner in Robin Hood), but brings a little spark to the role. There is a lot of that humorous opposites-attract banter you often see in movies like this. Even Maggie Smith shows up to play that haughty dowager she portrays in every movie that Judi Dench won’t do. It just doesn’t come off as anything all that special.
In the end, a devotee or someone who can’t get enough of men in tight breeches will see this is an unassuming addition to the genre. Most men and non-Austen fans will probably find it a little predictable and a bit slow (the running time is a lengthy two hours.) If you’ve worn out your DVD of Pride and Prejudice, though, this may give you a decent distraction.
Recognizing that the uninitiated may not know enough about Jane Austen to get full value out of the movie itself, the DVD tries to bring the audience up to speed. This is done using a couple of methods, including something called “Pop-Up Facts and Footnotes.” Acting almost as a silent commentary, little boxes of facts and information are shown on screen during the movie that add some information to the scene being shown.
This is actually a very good idea, but the execution is somewhat uneven. The boxes sometimes have way more information than can be read and still follow the scene to any degree. Also, while the facts are occasionally interesting and helpful, they don’t have quite enough for the whole movie. So, you get things popping up like the amount of average rainfall where Jane Austen grew up and the fact that one of the characters in her books owned a coach when a coach is shown on screen.
The other method of helping newbies get the most out of the movie is the commentary track. Director Julian Jarrold, writer Kevin Hood, and producer Robert Bernstein have a fairly informative commentary about how things in the movie relate to real things in Jane Austen’s life and what is just totally made up. There isn’t an abundance of unnecessary fawning over particular actors and the focus is on information rather than self-congratulation.
The making-of featurette is somewhat misleadingly titled “Discovering the Real Jane Austen.” It isn’t a biography of the writer as you might expect, but just the standard behind-the-scenes interviews you typically get with this type of extra. For example, Hathaway talks about how she played a lot of softball growing up and how that helped prepare her for a scene where Jane plays cricket. How this helps the viewer discover the “real” Jane Austen is not made entirely clear.
The final group of extras is a fairly large number of deleted scenes. There are 13 in all, although most are pretty short and they have that annoying timing information on the bottom and top. None really adds much to the story or gives you new information. While there isn’t any context or commentary provided, it is likely most were cut for timing. During the movie commentary, one of the participants noted that at one point the film was three hours long. Geesh, that would have been a trial to sit through.
The DVD has a crisp look that enhances some of the nice scenery and period costumes used. It’s a nice package and presentation and the attempt to help the non-fan get more out of the movie is a good touch. However, if you are not already an Austen devotee or have more than a passing knowledge of her books, this is probably not the movie for you, unless standard English period romances are your cup of tea.