Falling somewhere between a quaint pastoral comedy of manners and legitimate bio-pic, Julian Jarrold’s Becoming Jane (2007) – the supposed ‘true to life story’ of famous English author, Jane Austen has its work cut out, if for no other reason than much of Austen’s brief life remains an enigma. The real Austen was born in Steventon Hampshire and was one of eight children. By age 16, she had already produced her first literary work, History of England and was on her first draft of the novel that would eventually become Pride and Prejudice (published in 1813).
In 1802, Austen declined the only marriage proposal she would receive; from family friend Harris Bigg-Wither. Austen would thereafter remain in the company of her sister Cassandra until her own untimely death at the age of 41 from Addison’s disease. Although Austen produced 6 literary masterworks in her lifetime she was to enjoy only the fruits of her labors on the first four; Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Emma. Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were posthumously published. A final and unfinished novel, Sandition exists only in fragmented form. It has been suggested by literary critics that in its complexity and wit, Sandition is a work on par – if not, in fact exceeding – the prowess of Austen’s other novels. In a nutshell, that is the life of Jane Austen.
Julian Jarrold’s film is something entirely different; largely eschewing the exploration of Austen as author – ergo, her creative toil and personal sacrifice and suffrage for her art. Instead, the screenplay by Kevin Hood and Sarah Williams favors a largely fictional love story between pert pragmatist, Austen (Ann Hathaway) and aspiring attorney Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy) whose drunken revelry is the cause of much consternation from his uncle, Judge Langlois (Ian Richardson). Exiled to the country by Langlois, Lefroy meets Austen at a social gathering in the country. He is boorish and easily bored by her. She is discontented with his snap analysis of a public reading she has just given in honor of her sister Cassandra’s pending marriage.
As is the case with most clichéd film couples who take an instant dislike to one another, Jane and Tom’s fiery mutual contempt is eventually distilled into the great romance of their lives. Jane’s father, Rev Austen (James Cromwell) encourages the match. He is of the notion that, in matters of love, everyone should follow their own hearts. Jane’s mother (Julie Walters) however, emphatically does not favor Tom; she having orchestrated a forced ‘love match’ between Mr. Wisley (Lawrence Fox), the amiable – if not terribly outspoken – nephew of grand dame, Lady Gresham (Maggie Smith) and Jane. Prodded by his aunt, Wisley proposes marriage to Jane. He is humbly denied.
Tom and Jane journey to London to meet Tom’s uncle and secure his blessing for their marriage. However, the meeting is an utter catastrophe with Langlois threatening to deny his nephew his considerable fortune. Tom next plans to run off with Jane – an elopement that would ruin them both socially and financially. Instead, Jane recognizes the futility in their escaping the convention of their times - a disease of the age as well as of the mind. After a bittersweet parting, the film fast tracks to some undisclosed later date with Jane and Tom accidentally meeting in a concert hall. Neither looks all that much older, though they are clearly denoted as more mature adults by the introduction of Tom’s grown daughter, Jane (Sophie Vavassuer) whom Austen takes into her confidence for a final public reading.
As pure fiction, the story isn’t lacking. But it rarely sparks the sort of inspired romance one generally associates with like-minded fare such as Sense and Sensibility (1995) or Emma (1996). The screenplay rather awkwardly develops a strained romance between its two ill-fated protagonists but relies much too heavily on the scenic backdrop and English settings to procure and sustain our interest. There is, as example, no time allotted for the arch of the romance between Jane and Tom. They appear as adversaries in one scene and locked in a passionate embrace in the next; the latter beautifully photographed in a moonlit garden.
To be certain, Eigil Bryld’s cinematography is lush and lovely, extolling the gorgeous textures of the English countryside. But his close-ups on actors leaves something to be desired. The entire cast; certainly Hathaway and most particularly, McAvoy appear quite sickly – pasty flesh and unflattering shadows exaggerating facial lines and bags under their eyes and around their cheeks.
As photographed, there is no bloom of youth to contrast with the aforementioned later scenes where age and time have withered such physical robustness to mere memory. While this sort of ‘naturalist’ approach might be in keeping with the times (certainly the 1800s knew nothing of key lighting and spectral highlights) it is out of touch with audience’s expectations for romantic melodrama between two impossibly beautiful human beings.
If, as the movie’s publicity suggest “Jane Austen’s most extraordinary romance was her own life” than in the final analysis Becoming Jane is not Jane Austen’s life, but a rather sloppy remix of her own historical truth and snippets of social complexities derived from Austen’s novels. While many of the film’s scenes provide for a stunningly beautiful backdrop, the overall arch of its foreground narrative is static, not satisfying – less of a good time than a postcard of a life not even Austen would recognize or be willing to embrace as her own.
Alliance Home Entertainment delivers a beautifully rendered, near reference quality anamorphic DVD, capturing all of the essential beauty from the original theatrical experience. Colors, particularly greens found in foliage and the blue of the ocean are vibrantly depicted. Flesh tones are accurately a pasty pink as in the original release. Contrast levels are bang on with very deep solid blacks and pristine whites. Fine detail is evident even during the darkest scenes. The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital and delivers a very pronounced and special sonic experience. Extras include two brief featurettes, several deleted scenes and an informative audio commentary from the director and his writers.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)