Julian Jarrold's 'Becoming Jane' (2007)

Anne Hathaway in 'Becoming Jane'
Julian Jarrold's Becoming Jane tells a fictionalized account of the relationship between Jane Austen and Tom Lefroy, a young barrister whom Austen met when he stayed with relatives from December 1795 to January 1796 in Steventon, the coutryside where Austen spent much of her life. Letters from Austen to her sister Cassandra reveal that Austen spent a good deal of time with Lefroy, despite the brief duration of their acquaintance: "I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved. Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together." Lefroy admitted to a nephew in his later years that he had been in love with Austen: "It was boyish love." For the purposes of telling a better story, screenwriters Kevin Hood and Sarah Williams have embellished the relationship and have drawn Austen and Lefroy, the characters, to resemble Austen's own Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. Visually speaking, the film is gorgeous, thanks to Eigil Bryld's beautiful photography and David McHenry's impeccable art direction.

Jane Austen's life is an interesting one on which to base a romantic drama, given that Austen never married and died at the early age of 41. But perhaps it is that juxtaposition between Austen's writings and the events of her life that make Austen a person of interest, though surely the popularity of modern film adaptations and re-imaginings of Austen's novels significantly contributed to this project being green-lit. Becoming Jane suggests how Austen might have personally experienced the central conflict of much of her work, that is the dilemma of whether to follow one's head or one's heart in matters of marriage. However, I'm left feeling as though Hood and Williams artificially impose an imprint of Austen's work onto her life and I wonder what it is exactly that Jane is becoming in this film.
Anne Hathaway in 'Becoming Jane'
Many lovers of Jane Austen and her work balked at the suggestion of Anne Hathaway, an American, playing the notable British personality, and I have to say that I agree. While Hathaway by no means embarrasses herself here, she certainly does not own the role in a way that would preclude the hiring of a different actress, maybe even an English one. For my taste, Hathaway plays Austen as just a little too subdued — she fades into the background where she should stand out. James MacAvoy fares a little better as Tom Lefroy, but his character lacks definition. His transition from egotistical, hedonistic reprobate to sensitive, headstrong romantic seems sudden and inauthentic, as do many points in the script. I don't believe the family's rather extreme reactions to Jane playing the pianoforte early in the morning, nor Jane's tearing of her poem after overhearing Lefroy's criticism. Hathaway and MacAvoy do have real chemistry that is evident from Jane and Tom's first meeting; however, the inevitable budding of their romance seems perfunctory and not sufficiently earned by the preceding pages of the script. Becoming Jane is also plagued by too many false stops: I thought the film would end at least twice before the credits actually started to roll.

But despite the weaknesses of the script, the film provided for me a unique opportunity to consider the limitations that a poor financial situation placed on both sexes in Georgian-era England. Most films I have seen that take place in or around this era involve a woman from a lower station being pressured to marry a wealthy man but ultimately marrying a poor man for love. Becoming Jane depicts that situation as well as the exact opposite. Because his mother married for love below her station, Tom is being pressured by his uncle and feels obligated to his family to marry a wealthy woman. Indeed, Jane's cousin Eliza says that due to his meager finances he cannot make a marriage proposal. Money, not gender, offers romantic freedom in this world: Mr. Wisley may make a proposal to Jane, much to his wealthy aunt's incredulity, and Eliza, a widow made wealthy by her late husband, may marry Jane's brother Henry, who is ten years her junior as well as a poor clergyman's son.
Anne Hathaway and James MacAvoy in 'Becoming Jane'