Jane Austen purists have been up in arms about Becoming Jane — even prior to its theatrical release — due to its liberal take on the author's early life. But if you take it with a grain of salt, the film is ultimately an enjoyable, if somewhat flawed, work that might be perfect to watch on a lazy weekend afternoon.
No better or worse than your average period piece, the film attempts to capture the essence of English country life during the late 18th century. With scenes that depict a world filled with country dances and a society obsessed with following rules of propriety, the filmmakers definitely succeed in their attempts to show viewers where Austen might have received the inspiration to write her major novels. In fact, many of the characters and scenes echo elements of Austen's work — most notably, Pride and Prejudice. Mr. and Mrs. Austen (played by James Cromwell and Julie Walters) are reminiscent of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, whereas Maggie Smith's formidable Lady Gresham shares numerous qualities with Lady Catherine de Bourgh. And there is no doubt that some viewers might feel a bit of a thrill during the scenes where Anne Hathaway's Jane first sits down to begin her initial drafts of the beloved novel. These little bits and pieces, along with a few verbal spars between characters, certainly provide the film with an Austen-like quality even if they do seem a little overdone from time to time.
Of course, like many Austen novels themselves, the film focuses on romance. The film is based on Jon Spence's Becoming Jane Austen, a book that uses some of the author's letters to her sister to chronicle the former's relationship with a man by the name of Tom LeFroy (played by James McAvoy). LeFroy, as seen in the film, is a bit of everything — a handsome young man with simultaneously caddish and romantic qualities. It has even been implied that he may have been the inspiration for Mr. Darcy, though this is ultimately a disputable fact.
But some of the liberties taken with the romantic storyline do prove to be somewhat problematic. The film's ultimate descent into a melodramatic final hour does take away from some of its believability, and it doesn't matter that the studio has emphasized that the film is a work of fiction merely inspired by real-life events. We are subjected to witness LeFroy and Austen's attempts to make something of their ill-fated romance, while numerous scenes feature dialogue that emphasizes the importance of marrying well and behaving in a more prudent manner. And well-played as it is by the film's main leads, the two characters' final desperate attempt to elope doesn't ring true at all (even if Austen really was that invested in her relationship with LeFroy, which it doesn't seem she was). Much of this could have been trimmed and perhaps some tighter, less anvil-like dialogue during the last portion of the film would have been a great improvement.
While it contains some lovely moments and is well acted by Hathaway — who has come a long way since her origins as a Disney princess — and a charming McAvoy, Becoming Jane is far from perfect. But though it's not the best Jane Austen tribute out there, it's really not all that blasphemous either. If you're not a devout Austen follower and you have a soft spot for period pieces, it's worth checking out.
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