How do you explain the Jane Austen bandwagon, which rolls on full steam with Becoming Jane, an imitation screen adaptation of an Austen-like novel that imagines the author's romantic life at 20? Austen's refined language, which Sarah Williams and Kevin Hood's screenplay does a reasonably good job of capturing, is part of the charm. In the age of "whatever," who doesn't relish receiving a scrupulously considered, grammatically correct answer to a question?
Austen's reassuring brand of sense and sensibility, grounded in wit and sound moral judgment, is another attraction. To literate Anglophiles, Austen and everything she represents looms as a symbolic bulwark against the values of today's babelicious Babylon. The premarital meat market of her era was reassuringly prim.
"Tainted by suspicion" is the nastiest description applied by one woman to another in this film, which plays as a fanciful, scenic (but not too opulent) prequel to Pride and Prejudice. That slur is directed at Jane by the wealthy and snobbish Lady Gresham (Maggie Smith), whose beloved nephew Mr Wisley (Laurence Fox) is dissuaded from marrying Jane after she considers, then reconsiders, eloping with her true love.
Like a modern chick-lit heroine, Jane has no interest in marrying a juiceless man, rich or poor, who has the imagination and charisma of a stick. An aspiring novelist in a rigid social order in which women of conspicuous intelligence are frowned upon, she is willing to take her chances. At its most hardheaded, the film makes clear that when Jane forfeits her best opportunity for a financially advantageous match it is no laughing matter.
These imagined Austens live in genteel poverty. Jane's father (James Cromwell) is a parish preacher, and the family's hopes for a comfortable future depend on its daughters landing rich husbands. As Jane's fussbudget mother (Julie Walters) observes, "Affection is desirable; money is absolutely indispensable."
DIRECTED BY: Julian Jarrold
STARRING: Anne Hathaway (Jane Austen), James McAvoy (Tom Lefroy), Maggie Smith (Lady Gresham), Julie Walters (Mrs Austen), James Cromwell (Reverend Austen), Laurence Fox (Mr Wisley), Ian Richardson (Judge Langlois), Anna Maxwell Martin (Cassandra Austen), Helen McCrory (Mrs Radcliffe)
RUNNING TIME: 112 MINUTES
TAIWAN RELEASE: TODAY
Jane, however, is determined to marry for love or not all. When Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy), a rakish young Irish lawyer-in-training, comes along, it is him or nothing. Tom gives her a copy of Henry Fielding's History of Tom Jones, a Foundling to educate her about sex.
Austen, as we know, never married. And the movie implies that Tom was the real Mr Darcy, minus his fortune; hence, no marriage. Becoming Jane, directed by Julian Jarrold, whose previous movie was the garish comedy Kinky Boots, drives home the painfully limited options facing British women of limited means in the late-18th and early-19th centuries.
At country dances and balls, grown-ups scrutinize the behavior of blushing young women on the marriage block. Fun may be had, but the festivities are fraught with anxiety and calculation.
Becoming Jane is a triumph for Anne Hathaway, who brings to the young Jane the same jittery wide-eyed intensity she displayed in The Devil Wears Prada along with a secure British accent. She and McAvoy inject a keen intelligence into the couple's verbal jousts, along with romantic chemistry.
While Jane struggles to assert some independence, Tom squirms under the iron thumb of his humorless authoritarian uncle, Judge Langlois (Ian Richardson, in his last film role), who wields the purse strings. Everything about Jane, but especially her irony, offends this grim hanging judge, who hands out death sentences with a thunderous righteousness.