Saturday, August 15, 2015

Becoming Jane (2007)

Director: Julian Jarrold                                       Writers: Sarah Williams & Kevin Hood
Film Score: Adrian Johnston                              Cinematography: Eigil Bryld
Starring: Anne Hathaway, James McAvoy, James Cromwell and Maggie Smith

In a similar fashion as Shakespeare in Love, this film attempts to show the author falling in love, as well as being inspired to write one of her novels, Pride and Prejudice, through her own personal experience. Becoming Jane is, of course, about Jane Austen and her supposed infatuation with Irish law student Thomas Lefroy. It’s an ingenious concoction, especially in the way that the story in keeping with the kind of novels that Austen wrote. The Shakespeare film did the same thing. Despite it’s anachronistic parallel with Hollywood, and the fact that he was working on a tragedy, the film itself is more akin to one of his many comedies. By the same token, the Austen film demonstrates the way that she used the personalities of those people around her, including herself, to people her novels, and puts her romance--if there really was one--into the form of one of her stories. Director Julian Jarrold had worked primarily in television up to this point in his career, moving out of series work and into TV movies. His previous feature prior to this was the successful Kinky Boots, and he would go immediately from the Austen film into the remake of Brideshead Revisited before returning to the small screen. He brought along with him TV writers Sarah Williams and Kevin Hood and together they created a wonderful Jane Austen pastiche.

The film begins in the English countryside, with Anne Hathaway as Austin suffering from writer’s block. It’s early in the morning and she plays the piano for inspiration, waking everyone in the house in the process. Meanwhile James McAvoy as a law student in London, is trying to experience everything in life, from boxing to whores, and when he comes late to court his uncle, Ian Richardson, decides to teach him a lesson by sending him to the country, the deep country. It’s there that he comes late again to a gathering hosted by James Cromwell as Reverand Austen. Hathaway is reading aloud one of her stories about her sister, Anna Maxwell Martin, and her engagement. McAvoy can barely stay awake, and when Hathaway hears him insult her work, the two become the best of enemies. After a ball, in which the two go toe-to-toe exchanging barbs, her writer’s block is broken as she begins spewing forth adjectives to describe his uncouth behavior. But while the theory of opposites attracting is playing itself out, matron Maggie Smith wants to marry her nephew off to Hathaway. He has an income of his own as well as the promise of inheriting Smith’s estate, while McAvoy lives on the charity of his uncle. The only problem is that the nephew, Laurence Fox, has no personality whatsoever. To make matters worse, the Austen’s are little more than paupers and Hathaway’s mother, Julie Walters, is desperate for her to marry into money.

It’s not until McAvoy’s last night in the country that Hathaway allows her sense to rule over her sensibility and goes away with her brother and a countess to visit McAvoy’s uncle in London, in order to persuade him that she would be a suitable match for his nephew. But as in her books, Richardson is nearly apoplectic with rage at McAvoy marrying mere peasant and threatens to cut him off of funds altogether. What’s so fascinating about the screenplay by Williams and Hood is the way in which they come up with a motivation behind the novels. Hathaway says at one point that she wants to write about the truth, that bad things happen to good people and she intends to show that. But after her experiences with love and heartbreak, she turns her work into a way to right the wrongs done to people by reality. As with most of the films of this type, the British film industry has the production design down to a science. The costumes and sets are incredibly realistic and add the necessary verisimilitude to the project. Julian Jerrold doesn’t bring a whole lot of interest to the framing of the story but, to his credit, he doesn’t botch things either. In the same way, the film score by Adrian Johnston--another of Jerrold’s longtime partners--may fail to transcend, but it is serviceable and ultimately unobtrusive.

Obviously the real draw, other than the story itself, is the acting. Anne Hathaway is, at first, an unusual choice to play the British author. Her accent isn’t quite right, and while she is supposed to be a rebel of sorts, there seems to be a bit too much of the American in her performance. Nevertheless, she is someone that the audience can warm to as the film goes on and winds up doing a solid job as the heroine. James McAvoy, on the other hand, is perfection. He has a youthful charm and a joie de vivre that mirrors his character’s enthusiasm and recklessness. And he also has the added benefit of actually being British. The two of them are so good together that it really makes the climax all the more emotionally powerful. James Cromwell, another interesting choice as Hathaway’s father, doesn’t get enough screen time to do more than lend recognition to the role. It’s also unfortunate that Anna Maxwell Martin didn’t have a bigger part, as her quite innocence is a welcome balance to Hathaway’s more impassioned character. Maggie Smith naturally brings a wealth of gravitas to the part of the rich widow, and just a few years she would go on to a more comic character in Downton Abbey. Ultimately, Becoming Jane is a film that is far greater than the sum of its parts and, while not an obvious masterpiece, it certainly has plenty of glimpses of greatness that make it highly recommended.

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