Are there no other women in Hampshire?
I had never seen Julian Jarrold‘s Becoming Jane before today and yet my constantly being hit with a sense of familiarity while watching made me question that truth. The reason stems from the fact that screenwriters Kevin Hood and Sarah Williams crafted their tale of young Jane Austen fifteen years before her first novel (Sense and Sensibility) was published to unfold as though it was Pride and Prejudice. They’ve based this reading of Austen’s life on letters written to her sister Cassandra about a potential romance with Tom Lefroy despite the novelist never explicitly admitting her oft-adapted masterpiece was autobiographical in any way. So it was moments from Pride and Prejudice that I was remembering rather than this specific film, its mirroring extremely blatant for better or worse.
It was actually Austen scholar Jon Spence who wrote a well-received biography upon this exact thesis a few years before entitled Becoming Jane Austen. If you watch the credits, however, you’ll notice this piece of literature is not mentioned. Whether or not Hood and Williams got the idea for their screenplay from Spence, their ability to simply go back to Austen’s letters and do it themselves allowed the production to cut him out of a writing credit and throw him the title “historical consultant” instead. Most writing found online about the movie unsurprisingly makes mention of it being based on that book regardless, though, since it’s impossible to separate the two when even the titles are practically identical. Credit is a ruthless business within the film industry.
But I digress. The film focuses upon the unlikely and unplanned romance between the country daughter (Anne Hathaway‘s Jane) of an Angelican parish reverend (James Cromwell) and an Irish-born lawyer (James McAvoy‘s Tom) cutting his teeth in London under the watchful eye of his uncle’s powerful judge (Ian Richardson). Jane has hopes of being an independent woman living off her writing talent while her mother (Julie Walters) is pulling strings in the background to marry her off to the rich Lady Gresham’s (Maggie Smith) eventual heir, her nephew Mr. Wisley (Laurence Fox). Tom is a womanizer having fun in the big city and thus testing his uncle’s patience until finally being “punished” to spend a summer in Steventon with another relative who happens to be the Austens’ neighbor.
It’s an oil and water dynamic with the two making assumptions that lead to intellectually biting conversations opening them up to discovering the truth. We know they’re in love despite it taking half the film for them to admit it, but marriage is about much more than affection at the tail end of the nineteenth century. They might both be penniless, but he’s the ward of someone with wealth while she’s starting to realize her family is on the cusp of poverty. So Tom would have to perform magic to get Judge Langlois to accept Jane as a suitable wife and she would have to turn down an offer with a lucrative future for herself and her family to accept him. The alternative is elopement and familial excommunication.
The journey they take is a charming one with plenty of intrigue on the periphery from Cassandra’s (Anna Maxwell Martin) fiancé going to fight the French to hers and Jane’s brother Henry (Joe Anderson) being seduced by their older, widowed cousin Eliza De Feuillide (Lucy Cohu). There’s social commentary, emotional commentary, and a slew of unfortunate oppressive notions driving Jane and Tom to want their freedom while also reminding them how winning it would cause extensive collateral damage to those they love. What starts out looking like parallel tales of two spoiled rich kids finding each other’s ego to be attractive gradually makes way towards the mature loss of happiness for a greater good their stations in this world have forced upon them as an unfair but necessary responsibility.
This point of dramatic conflict is hardly new in romances so discovering that Gresham and Wisley are made up characters in order to manufacture it is less than ideal. As it is Becoming Jane finds itself dragging immensely during its middle third once everyone is suddenly thrust into the roles of those compelled to move against their hearts and those doing the compelling. While this isn’t necessarily bad for the latter since they are meant to be obstacles, it is frustrating with the former. The film works very hard to make Tom out to be a punk with a playful sense of superiority, so having him instantly turn into this saint who wants nothing more than Jane on his arm without warning (besides convention) is tough to swallow.
Watching these two lovebirds taunt the other is so much more interesting than having to witness their environment and era constantly beat them down. What was funny and light becomes laboriously futile, the two halves too tonally different to allow the overarching lesson of sacrifice the authenticity it deserves. There was spontaneity during that unorthodox courtship and only the certainty of check-stop storytelling afterwards. Besides one mystery that’s more or less pushed aside as a MacGuffin (a letter to Judge Langlois) until it becomes a throwaway “a-ha” reveal concerning a character the whole could have done without, the final hour of runtime is an exercise in template-driven plot progression leaving no room for personality or style. Thankfully the acting is good enough to make the journey worthwhile.
It’s all been modernized for our entertainment with bold flirtations, salacious rumors, and extreme candor, but none of these anachronisms approach the originality of Whit Stillman‘s “Lady Susan” adaptation Love & Friendship. So much is augmented to run Austen’s life through a Pride and Prejudice filter that you start wishing you were just watching that instead. Trying to make Tom an equal to Jane in importance at risk of making her a pawn to her own story before ultimately doing the same to him doesn’t help, proving how they exist for the gimmick rather than historical accuracy. It’s too bad because Hathaway and McAvoy are both very good. I don’t know why she and Cromwell were cast within a British-funded production opposite Brits, but she holds her own.