Becoming Jane (review)
Oh, I know it’s not real, okay? I know it’s a bit of speculation wildly spun of out, like, one mention made in, like, one letter that Austen flirted with this Lefroy guy, but so what? So what if it’s a fantasy, a “fictional biography”? Didn’t Austen write fantasy, too? Don’t her books end up with all the deserving young women married to generous and worthy husbands? Austen herself knew how unlikely that was.
So I love Becoming Jane even if it is almost entirely invented, because it captures both the aching romanticism and the cold, hard practicalities of Austen’s fiction. And it even, in a way, does Austen one better: it’s laden with all of the angst and heartbreak and tears we’ve come to expect from a Sense & Sensibility or a Pride & Prejudice, but because it is adhering to the spirit of Austen’s life — she never married, never enjoyed any kind of long-term romantic entanglements that posterity is aware of — it doesn’t indulge in a happy ending. How can it?
Spoiler alert! Anne Hathaway’s (The Devil Wears Prada, Brokeback Mountain) charming and independent Jane does not end up happily ever after with James McAvoy’s (The Last King of Scotland, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) handsome and roguish lawyer Tom Lefroy. But I’ve “spoiled” the movie only for those who aren’t familiar with Austen or her work — and I promise, the movie works far better as a “fictional biography” — an enrapturing, spirited one — of Austen, works far better with the foreknowledge of the bittersweetness of her independent, unmarried life, than it does as silly sitcom that hangs on the fulfillment of romantic dreams. Becoming Jane is too heartfelt to be dismissed as that.
The idea is that Lefroy was kinda the inspiration for Mr. Darcy, Austen’s most (in)famous hero. Something of a Georgian frat boy when we first meet him, he’s an Irish law student run afoul of his mentor in London with all his partying and whoring and general indulgence in daily bacchanalia, so he is sent down to the country as punishment. Round around Jane’s way, in fact, where he gets off on scoffing at the bumpkins — like the silly preacher’s daughter who fancies herself an authoress. There are instant sparks of spitfire loathing between them, as you might expect from a meeting of strong, self-assured personalities, until it thaws into electric yearning.
And how it thaws. Every element of the film works in beautiful collusion to build to a cinematic expression of desire that is, deliciously, as fueled by hormones as it is by intellect. The clever script — by Kevin Hood and Sarah Williams (she wrote The Secret Life of Mrs. Beeton) — sneaks in some of Austen’s social satire on the standing of women but mostly gears itself toward witty verbal sparring as a slyly feminist stand-in for coy flirtation… and I mean feminist on Lefroy’s part as well as on Austen’s. Tom is a man who knows he can be a little more daring, a little more “shocking,” with Jane because she’s not quite the conventional young lady. The scene in the library, when he gently taunts her shelteredness… oh, it’s very sexy, and all they do is talk about books and writing. But the subtext, though: when he tells her that if she wants her writing to be considered more than the parlor trick by a young lady, “experience is vital”… and we know what kind of experience he’s talking about.
The objection could be — and has been — raised by too-serious Austen fans that it’s ridiculous to suggest that she couldn’t have written what she wrote if she were a sheltered virgin, that her horizons were perfectly wide enough, thankyouverymuch, without having to invent a romance for her. That may well be true. And the film doesn’t contradict that supposition. I won’t spoil the heartbreaking specifics of how precisely not-happy the ending is, but it doesn’t erase the Jane we already know. It does show us a Jane who knew exactly what was at stake when it came to matters of the heart, and why it was worth holding out for more than mere financial comfort when forming a life-match.
I keep coming back to one scene, midfilm, when Jane has finally realized that, gods yes, she wants Tom. She’s at a ball that she thinks he might be at, too, and she keeps glancing around for him while she twirls unhappily on the dance floor, hoping to see him, needing to see him. And director Julian Jarrold (who made the wonderful Kinky Boots) lets the suspense build and build — will she see him? is he there? — until suddenly, he is there, at her side, dancing around her… and the ache on both their faces is so extraordinary that it made me burst into tears. It’s a perfect moment, full of longing and love and the total attainment of that pining, which must, inevitably — if you know Jane’s story — be lost. I burst into tears, because, like Jane, like many of us, I’ve tasted that, and lost that, too.
And that’s what makes Becoming Jane so just-right. It recognizes the dream, and recognizes how unattainable it often is.
I think Jane herself would approve.