This past weekend I saw Julian Jarrold‘s Becoming Jane, a fictionalized retelling of Jane Austen’s becoming a novelist. Here’s the trailer:

The movie stars Anne Hathaway as Austen and James McAvoy as the penniless man she falls in love with but, due to his penury, cannot marry. McAvoy’s Tom LeFroy is dependent on his uncle for an allowance. When his uncle demands that he marry well, LeFroy’s hope of marrying his true love, whom he’s recently met after being banished by said uncle to the deep countryside in punishment for his libertine activities in London, becomes impossible.

Meanwhile, every man in the country seems to fall in love with Jane, including the heir to Lady Gresham’s estate, Mr. Wisley, played by Laurence Fox. Lady Gresham is played by the incomparable Maggie Smith. Poor Jane must decide which beau to marry: the penniless LeFroy, the heir, or one of her other suitors.

The film also shows us Austen’s home life. Her impoverished parents, played by James Cromwell and Julie Walters, debate the roles of love and money in marriage while trying to make sure that their daughter marries as happily as possible. Her sister, Cassandra, played by Anna Maxwell Martin, is happily engaged to her fiance, who must make one last voyage abroad before he’s able to marry her. And the Austens’ cousin, Eliza De Feuillide, played by Lucy Cohu, a widowed emigrant from Revolutionary France, has the money to marry the man of her choice, which turns out to be the Austen’s younger son, Henry, played by the very handsome Joe Anderson.

I have to admit that I didn’t care much for this film. Julian Jarrold also directed Kinky Boots, a movie that I really enjoyed. So, I’m disappointed that I disliked this movie so much. But in this case, I think his direction was rather pedestrian. I didn’t feel like I was seeing anything new or even terribly interesting in this movie. The film that kept coming to mind as a comparison was Pride and Prejudice (2005) directed by Joe Wright. I especially liked Wright’s direction of that movie. A scene that stands out is when Elizabeth and Darcy are dancing together and all of the other dancers disappear, reflecting the couple’s amorous focus on one another. This movie could have used a little more of that romance.

I also thought that the screenplay by Kevin Hood and Sarah Williams was cliched and rather hackneyed. LeFroy and Austen’s romance develops much too quickly, and the film’s attempts to show how Austen was inspired to adapt elements from her own life to write her novels is much too subtle. I was anticipating something much more like Shakespeare in Love, something witty and comical. The screenplay makes a great deal of the word irony — Austen is frequently discussing the word and its meaning with other characters, so it’s surprising to me that the film itself wasn’t more ironic.

But there are elements of the film that I enjoyed. Hathaway and McAvoy were both more than competent in their roles, though I thought Hathaway’s Austen was too anachronistic for the period. But that too might be a result of the writing rather than of the acting. I’m not sure if the film ever really decides whether Austen is a rebel challenging her society’s rigid social codes or a realist who accepts those codes as a necessary evil. There’s a scene in which she joins the boys in playing cricket. This scene is, I think, meant to show her rejection of social codes, but this theme isn’t really carried out in other scenes.

McAvoy is also fine as the romantic male lead, though I think both he and Hathaway always seem smarter than their characters were allowed to be. We do get a brief flash of nudity from McAvoy and Anderson, which is certainly nice, though this too seems rather cliched — Austen catches a glimpse of their backsides and seems somewhat scandalized by it. Why not have her acknowledge in some way how interesting and pleasurable this glimpse might be?

Julie Waters is the best part of the movie. She imbues the Austen matriarch with intelligence, passion, and realism that effectively reimagines the motivations of a character like Mrs. Bennett from Pride and Prejudice. She’s really great in this small but pivotal role.

I also really admired the film’s cinematography. There are some shots, particularly of tree trunks in one scene, that are simply beautiful.

So, on the whole, I thought this was a disappointing movie, however admirable its intentions. It needed a more believable romance (and another rewrite or two) and a lot more wit and innovation.

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