Becoming Jane
R E V I E W   B Y   R I C H   C L I N E dir Julian Jarrold
scr Sarah Williams, Kevin Hood
with Anne Hathaway, James McAvoy, Julie Walters, James Cromwell, Maggie Smith, Joe Anderson, Lucy Cohu, Laurence Fox, Anna Maxwell Martin, Leo Bill, Ian Richardson, Helen McCrory
release UK 9.Mar.07, US 3.Aug.07
06/UK Miramax 2h00

Literary love: Hathaway and McAvoy

walters cromwell smith
Becoming Jane After Miss Potter, another British writer is given the worthy cinematic treatment, complete with an American actress in the title role and sentiment that overwhelms what should be a gritty story.

At the turn of the 19th century, Jane Austen (Hathaway) lives in Hampshire with her rather lively family. Her parents (Cromwell and Walters) hope for a suitable marriage, but Jane is too brainy for most men, and won't settle for someone she doesn't love, such as the nephew (Fox) of the lady of the local manor (Smith). Then she meets the infuriating rogue Tom Lefroy (McAvoy), and their banter leads to strong mutual attraction. But the road to a suitable match is a rocky one.

It's fascinating to see the early life of such an influential writer, especially when her circumstances so obviously inspired her storytelling. But the filmmakers play this parallel with a heavy hand, so we feel like we're watching a mash-up of Pride & Prejudice, Sense & Sensibility and Mansfield Park, with most of the main characters in tact. As a result, the plot feels over-familiar and predictable.

But even this wouldn't be a problem if it weren't for a jarring shift in tone halfway in. What starts as a raucous, rough-edged group of characters and situations suddenly turns into a soppy, plodding romantic drama, drained of all humour. The worst victim is McAvoy, whose character becomes a completely different person and drags us into the mopey bog with him.

None of the characters really survive this shift. Hathaway is good as Jane--feisty and fiercely intelligent. Her soulful eyes give us much more than the script ever does; her dialog sounds like over-written Austen prose. Walters, Cromwell and Smith make the most of their underwritten roles, while the large ensemble of lesser-known cast members register strongly here and there.

The production is impeccable, with lush cinematography, editing, costumes and design, but it never leaps off the screen with any particular originality. The most interesting aspect of this story is the tension between propriety and experience in the various characters, the way Jane's far-ahead-of-her-time attitudes created such a scandal for those around her. If only the filmmakers had followed her example.

cert PG themes, innuendo, some violence 10.Jan.06

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2007 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall