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BECOMING JANE

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Anne Hathaway, James McAvoy, Julie Walters, James Cromwell, Maggie Smith
Director:  Julian Jarrold
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Miramax
Features:  See Review
Length:  120 Minutes
Release Date:  February 12, 2008

“What’s she doing?”

“Writing.”

“Can anything be done about it?”

Film ***

Jane Austen is one of the most beloved authors in Western literature.  Her six novels continued to be revered by fans all over the world more than 200 years after she penned them.  Her tales were filled with wit, societal observations and romance…and if you believe the makers of Becoming Jane, the greatest love story of her life was her own.

But who knows?  When historical fiction presents itself, it can be hard to separate the history from the fiction.  We know Jane Austen never married, and we know she made a name for herself as a successful writer in an era when women weren’t supposed to earn their own livings.  In her time, marriage was frequently for family and financial convenience.  Love rarely had anything to do with it.

As we meet the young Jane (Hathaway), she lives with her family on a farm in meager conditions.  Her father (Cromwell) was a clergyman, and her mother (Walters) came to him through an arrangement.  Such an arrangement might be in Jane’s future as well, as the haughty Lady Gresham (the eternal Smith) figures to match her up with her nephew, a man who will inherit money and property, but lacks grace and charm.

Into her world comes Tom Lefroy (McAvoy), a legal student from London tied to the purse strings of his uncle.  As is typical in romance stories, even those written by Ms. Austen, they hate each other, then they fall in love.  But how can it be, being that both are practically penniless and both are owing duties to others for their futures?

Jane dreams of writing, but there is only one woman role model she can look to.  Ann Radcliffe became a success in creating the gothic novel, with her work earning her thousands of pounds, but it also brought her scorn and disdain in “good” society.  Tough decisions will have to be made…and in a world such as Jane’s, sometimes the choices are made for you.

Becoming Jane is a pleasant film, with a solid cast, but could have used a little more of the rapier wit Jane Austen was so famous for.  As a love story, it plays out much like one of her own novels, but without the delightful irony and cynicism that made them such good reads.  Little is known about her and her possible love with Lefroy, other than a couple of mentions in letters.  It’s safe to say that a lot of speculation is going on here.

So what we get is not a biopic…in fact, we barely get to Jane Austen’s first success Pride and Prejudice when the curtain falls on the story.  What we have instead is a historical re-imagination of events.  They make for a lovely diversion, but don’t really bring us any closer to one of the world’s most read novelists.

Still, it’s entertaining, and a sumptuous world to visit for a couple of hours.  It’s not as good as reading one of Austen’s own tomes, but it will offer you a bit of escapism in her style.

BONUS TRIVIA:  Anne Hathaway wrote a thesis on Jane Austen in college, and also learned to play the piano for the role.

Video ***

This is a lovely anamorphic transfer from Miramax.  A lot of natural lighting is employed, and the settings look authentically British (read: overcast), as it was mostly filmed in Ireland.  Colors look natural and detail level is good throughout.

Audio ***

Though mostly dialogue-oriented, the 5.1 track is still effective in creating the ambience of the English countryside.  Dynamic range isn’t particularly strong, but neither is it called for.

Features ***

There is a commentary from the director, writer and producer, which is kind of dry, but informative.  Better is the pop-up trivia track option, which is loaded with interesting goodies.  There is a featurette on the making of the film and the real Jane Austen, plus 13 deleted scenes.

Summary:

Becoming Jane isn’t a landmark period piece by any means, but still a good film, with good performances and dedication to Jane Austen in style if not always in fact.  It should please fans of her work, of which there are still many.

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