I will be the first to admit that I am no expert on Jane Austen. I have only a very passing familiarity with her work, and pretty much zero insight into who she was as a person. Because of this, I am definitely not the target audience for Becoming Jane. However, I like to believe that good films are able to take a subject that is not necessarily interesting to certain audience members, and then make even those members care about it. I would never deny that Becoming Jane is well crafted. And I can respect the film simply because in this world of box-office receipts and disposable entertainment it at least attempts to accomplish something. It does, however, fall victim to the maladies of many biopics and period pieces, meaning it’s too reverent and formal to really be alive or interesting. Charlotte Brontë in criticism of Austen’s novels once wrote, “Anything like warmth or enthusiasm, anything energetic, poignant, heartfelt, is utterly out of place in commending these works.” It’s unfortunate that the same critique could be applied to Becoming Jane.
The film takes the route of displaying a single period in Austen’s (Anne Hathaway) life, in particular her romance with a young Irishman named Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy, The Last King of Scotland) and how this romance laid the groundwork for her future writing. The film also works as a defense of her work—similar to Austen’s on-screen defense of irony—while simultaneously attempting to parallel her life and writing.
It should be noted that much of the film isn’t grounded in fact, but on speculation—a case of “dot-to-dot” connections, as coproducer Graham Broadbent has put it. The filmmakers have taken a few letters from Austen to her sister Cassandra, which speak of Lefroy, and from there have built the storyline. It’s an interesting approach to examining the writer’s life and how Austen’s early romance may later have served as material for her books; but at the same time, the reasons why Austen writes, feels the need to write, or her creative process are never examined. While these aspects are not essential to the movie, they would have made cinematic Austen seem more like a person and less like a historical figure that the audience is spying on.
Director Julian Jarrold’s (Kinky Boots) choice to pace the film extremely deliberately is regrettable, especially when comparing the film to Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice (2005), which managed to take similar material and make it lively and contemporary. There are a few subtle touches that work, like the second time Austen and Lefroy encounter each other at a dance, but these are few and far between.
In the end, the film just ends up feeling too restrained and passionless. You know the characters are supposed to be in love, and Hathaway and McAvoy have good chemistry on-screen, but there is never any real urge to care about how any of this will turn out. However, Austen fans or those in search of a sophisticated romance that can’t be found in the usual summer blockbusters will have a hard time finding too much to complain about. Rated PG for brief nudity and mild language.