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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"BECOMING JANE"

Jane Austen is somewhat unique in the world of literature. More than two hundred years after the fact, people still read her books – not just because a college professor has assigned them, not just out of a sense of obligation to read the classics, and not just in an attempt to assume an air of intellectualism. People read her books for fun. Even in today’s modern world, the stories and emotions Austen created feel relevant. That’s no doubt why so many - Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Emma - have been adapted into motion pictures. Little is known for certain about Austen’s love life, but Becoming Jane takes one documented, short-lived acquaintanceship and continues speculation that it may have influenced her writing.

Anne Hathaway plays Austen as a young aspiring writer and romantic. There are attempts to marry her off for money, but Jane desires affection above all else. If her parents had their way, she’d end up with Mr. Wisley (Laurence Fox), whose aunt is the wealthy Lady Gresham (Maggie Smith). Jane rebuffs the union despite everyone’s best efforts. Then she meets Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy), a young lawyer whom she initially doesn’t like. In real life, Austen mentioned Lefroy briefly in two letters; in the movie, her attitude toward him thaws considerably, and eventually she thinks she has discovered the love of her life. Just like in a Jane Austen novel, romantic complications abound, but I won’t elaborate on them here.

The central idea in Becoming Jane is that “Pride and Prejudice” may have been semi-autobiographical. Like Elizabeth Bennet, Jane is a smart, feisty woman who prizes love above all else, and who resents her parents’ attempts to find her a husband. Like Mr. Darcy, Lefroy is an uptight, occasionally abrasive man whose clashes with Jane cause both of them to feel a strange sense of excitement. The novel and this film also share a subplot involving the heroine’s sister experiencing a romantic tragedy.

This is not a bad idea for a movie, except that the film plays more like a new cinematic adaptation of that book than as an outright examination of Jane Austen’s storytelling inspiration. I kept flashing back a mere two years ago, to the Keira Knightley version of Pride and Prejudice, which was vibrant and energetic. Costume dramas are my least favorite genre, but that one was lively enough to really involve me. Given how recently that picture was released – and how good it was - Becoming Jane would have been better served had it emphasized the way Austen may have pulled events from real life to fuel her stories. Surprisingly, there are few moments here where we actually see her engaged in the craft of writing.

It doesn’t completely help that Becoming Jane is slower and less passionate in the telling of its love story than Pride and Prejudice was. I never quite felt the deep connection that Jane and Tom supposedly have. If this really was a romance that inspired one of the most beloved novels of all time, you wouldn’t be able to guess it from this movie.

Some things I liked. The performances are very good – especially Anne Hathaway’s – and the film does get better as it goes on. I was bored for the first half-hour, but then found the performances and some of the dynamics between the characters growing on me. The supporting cast, which includes the indispensable James Cromwell as Jane’s father, is excellent. A few individual moments are also heartfelt and affecting, particularly at the end as Jane and Lefroy attempt to navigate a significant hurdle in their relationship.

I just think the approach was off. If the filmmakers want us to believe that Jane Austen drew from real life for “Pride and Prejudice,” they needed to show us more of how she formulated the story instead of essentially remaking it. Despite some admirable elements, Becoming Jane never reaches the movie equivalent of being a page-turner.

( 1/2 out of four)


Becoming Jane is rated PG for brief nudity and mild language. The running time is 1 hour and 53 minutes.

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