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"Jane Austen Outsells Alice Walker and Ann Coulter," reads the Newsweek headline. And that being the case, how could any self-respecting Hollywood studio exec stay away from her?
The entertainment industry has already transformed every one of Austen's much-beloved novels (she wrote six) into feature films and/or miniseries. All that was left was either remaking Pride & Prejudice for about the 10th time, or putting the author herself in the spotlight.
Director Julian Jarrold opted for the latter. And watching the final result is a bit surreal. The story about Jane Austen looks and feels exactly like the stories by Jane Austen—at least in the way they've been translated into movies.
Jane is a young woman when the first scenes flicker across the screen. (The 1700s are giving way to a new century.) She's struggling to find her balance as a writer while her mother struggles to get her married off to a rich suitor. Jane wants nothing to do with Mr. Wisley or his money, though. She's intent upon marrying for one reason and one reason alone: affection.
That quest for affection leads her to Tom Lefroy, a young, rather loose-minded but intelligent gent who is apprenticing as a solicitor. Naturally, they despise each other at first look. But annoyance soon leads to kissing—as is so often the case in movies presenting Victorian and pre-Victorian romances.
Kissing, in turn, leads to a desperate play for marriage. But the society is too rigid and the families too hung up on decorum to allow it. (Never mind why; the movie's more concerned with the passions provoked by the whats than the logic or tradition guiding the whys.) Tom glumly gets engaged to a more appropriate girl. And Jane resigns herself to a decidedly unaffectionate union with Wisley.
But this story, told from a self-described "boldly different perspective," is about the queen of emotional second chances. So there's a bit more to it. ...
Jane is convinced that love must be part of the marriage equation. Thus, she deems monetary considerations irrelevant in matters of the heart. Her father backs her up, scolding her mother for trying to push their daughter into a loveless relationship so as to bolster the Austen family's reputation and financial bottom line.
Jane does once allow filthy lucre to factor in to her decision-making process, but only because the destitution of Tom's family would be the inevitable result of a choice. She refuses to pine for riches for herself. And she can't bring herself to intentionally and selfishly take away what little someone else has, either.
Jane and her mother bicker from time to time, and they certainly don't see eye to eye when it comes to social situations. But the Austen family is a loving one, devoted to and protective of one another. Jane's father, who is a minister, plays the peacemaker within the family, and he goes so far as to risk his standing in the community when he publicly declares his absolute support for his daughter no matter what willful actions she undertakes. Everyone pitches in to comfort Jane's sister when she's overcome with grief.
Jane's father is shown preaching to his congregation. (His words, while positive, are more relational than spiritual.) Jane's sister's beau aspires to be a minister, and he volunteers to put in a stint as a military chaplain in order to secure for himself a parish upon completion of service.
With a wink and a smirk, Tom informs Jane that she'll never be a good writer unless she seeks out "experience." The implication is that he means sexual experience. To try to prove his point, he gives her a copy of the book The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, in which the author describes sexual attraction. Some of the book is read aloud. Its passages are torrid, especially by the standards of the day, but nothing read could be considered "explicit." References are made to a woman's "well-formed" breasts, for instance. Quoting from another book, Tom tries to shock Jane with talk about ecstatic cries. Jane's ultimate response? She calls the passages' morality "flawed."
Tom and Jane's kisses are infrequent, but passionate. In one scene, he manhandles her a bit, pushing her back against a tree, trying to convince her of his devotion.
In bed, the Rev. and Mrs. Austen talk about their sex life. She teasingly tells him she's never experienced "perfection" in all her years with him. He counters, "Yet," before reaching playfully under the covers. It's implied that Jane's brother and his fiancée fool around behind closed doors.
Tom's uncle, who holds the reins of the young man's life, tells him it would be preferable for him to become that day and age's equivalent of a playboy than to marry Jane. And, indeed, Tom is seen in several situations with women of ill repute, and he kisses a "companion." He makes a crack about a man being a virgin, and therefore "sour-faced." There's talk of a "Tahitian love-fest."
Tom and another man strip down to their birthday suits and wade into the water. The camera peers through the trees from behind. (The result is a full view of rear nudity.) Period costumes reveal cleavage.
Tom participates in two boxing matches. In one, he and his opponent wear gloves. In the other, the fight is bare-knuckle. Both times, he's KO'd after dishing out and taking some pretty vicious punches to the torso and face. Blood dribbles from his nose after one bout.
When Tom gets pushy and plants an uninvited kiss on Jane, she retaliates by slapping and hitting his chest.
Startled, Tom accidentally fires the rifle he's examining, nearly hitting somebody. A couple of references are made to people meeting their ends via guillotine.
Crude or Profane Language
Two people blurt out "d--n." God's name is improperly interjected a handful of times. "Bloody" is said once.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Drinks are served at balls and dinners. Tom gulps wine to get his courage up. Jane's brother swigs from a bottle. A pipe is seen.
Other Negative Elements
Onlookers bet on Tom's boxing outcomes.
Very little seems to be known about Jane Austen beyond what she penned in her novels. Biographical information, of course, is readily available. But it's of the staid variety. Birth date. Death. Names of relatives. The kind of historical data that gets written in a big family Bible. Her sister, Cassandra, reportedly burned much of the author's correspondence after Jane died of an undiagnosed ailment when she was 41. So the level of Jane's involvement with Tom Lefroy is unknown beyond documentation that indicates Tom was indeed a real person and that the two of them danced together at a few balls.
The rest of the reconstruction that takes place in Becoming Jane is pure speculation. That isn't sitting so well with passionate fans of Miss Austen. But it makes for great theater, as it were, and theater is what fills seats in theaters. So don't think of the film as a biopic, but rather an emotional celebration of an author who specialized in emotion.
If Jane Austen were to write a novel about her own hidden and unfulfilled desires, what might it look like?
That's essentially what screenwriters Kevin Hood and Sarah Williams must have been asking themselves as they—to their credit—masterfully created a story about a storyteller that she herself would likely have enjoyed. She wouldn't have recognized herself or her life, but she probably would have wished she'd come up with it first.
Connoisseurs of Emma, Sense and Sensibility and Pride & Prejudice won't mind that Becoming Jane's pacing is slow by today's admittedly too-furious standards, or that large segments of screen time are devoted to cricket matches, walks in the woods, country dances and languid looks at reflections on ponds. They might not like the fact that you're never really given any hints about why Jane and Tom suddenly stop tweaking each other and fall headlong into love. But Anne Hathaway carries what we would imagine to be Jane's presence and accent beautifully. And those languid moments will connect well beyond Austen's core audience as they drive home the point that ball-centered life 200 years ago was quite different from mall-centered life today.
A decade ago we called Emma "nearly perfect entertainment." Of Sense and Sensibility: "An uplifting story with a witty spirit of justice." And of the latest Pride & Prejudice incarnation: "Austen's story makes a great starting place for conversations about issues of growing up, finding a mate, history, culture and family relationships." Becoming Jane isn't nearly perfect like Emma. But it is still uplifting and it is certainly a great starting place for conversations.
Had Jane Austen thought of writing this tale about herself two centuries before Hood and Williams did, she most likely would have knocked out the fight scenes, purged a few profanities and axed the implication that sexual skill yields artistic maturity. That would have made for a nearly flawless film—even though she'd have had no idea what a film was.
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Readability Age Range
Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen; James McAvoy as Tom Lefroy; James Cromwell as Rev. Austen; Julie Walters as Mrs. Austen; Maggie Smith as Lady Gresham; Joe Anderson as Henry Austen; Laurence Fox as Mr. Wisley
Julian Jarrold ( )