Becoming Jane (review)

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True Romance

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.

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Fri, Aug 03, 2007 2:02pm

This has flown in under the radar and I really want to see it (probably more than most of the summer movies I’ve seen…hmm, I think that’s been two). I can probably convince Mr. bats that he’ll like this, too.

Mon, Aug 13, 2007 9:16pm

My god — how could anyone NOT fall in love with James McAvoy Tom Lefroy? I must have cried through most of the movie, but knowing how it ended — how it had to end — didn’t stop me hoping. Around the time Jane and Lefroy made their last, desperate attempt to be together, I found myself pleading with the movie, please, let her have him. Let her have him.

The ballroom scene you describe is electric. I feel like I’ve seen a million of these Austen adaptation dancing scenes (Lizzie is snarky, Darcy is pompous, swirly camera, intense stare, rinse, repeat), but this feels new. The unbearable suspense (where IS he?); the megawatt glow of Jane’s smile when she finally sees him; the knowing glances that ripple across the faces of the onlookers; the acute need to stand near each other, even if decorum prevents them from speaking — all of it is so perfectly executed that I ache just thinking about it.

I suppose it is just a fantasy, but I like to think Jane Austen could have experienced that one exquisite season. I think she deserves it.

Mon, Aug 13, 2007 10:16pm

I know, I know — the “where IS it?” bit is exquisite.

I had the great pleasure of meeting James McAvoy when he was promoting the Narnia movie, and he is a doll.

Wed, Aug 15, 2007 1:20pm

Oh my.
My first thought when I saw previews of unbelievably attractive Hathaway playing Jane Austen, and dancing around with a handsome beau, was “What are they doing to Jane Austen?” I’ve done no research on it to help gauge it’s worthiness. I just immediately put it on my No-way-am-I-seeing-this list.
Then I read your review. Now I ree-ally want to see it. Oh, well. You did a great job talking this one up.
And, yeah, James McAvoy was the best part of Narnia.

Mon, Aug 27, 2007 12:56pm

For me, this story hit the right balancing note to the Austen novels. The sad and hopeless (as far as marriages go) endings for the 2 sisters balanced by the hopeful and victorious ones of her heroines. It’s interesting to ponder how much of the situations and personalities in her books could have been derived from her life experiences. To have written stories that tug at your heart as well as your funny bone, Jane Austen must have had some experience that informed that depth of heartbreak.
The sadness within the story is balanced by the Austenesque wit and the huge triumphs of being published and well-read, but most of all, remaining true to herself.
Anyway, I’m just glad I was able to not sob out loud while in the movie. This is one of the few movies I think worth going to see in spite of the emotional upheaval it put me through.

Mon, Aug 27, 2007 1:59pm

I sobbed out loud at the dance scene. *sigh*

Sun, Sep 02, 2007 11:26am

Has anyone read Becoming Jane Austen, the new(ish) biography upon which this movie is based? The author was the historical consultant on this film (per his book) and it seems, through the discovery of some hitherto unknown letters, much of the relationship as shown in the film (sans the almost-elopement, but who knows for sure?), probably, might have happened. Interestingly, I found, the author writes that it is Lefroy who was the inspiration for JA’s Elizabeth Bennet – one, because his family consisted of 5 sisters, all of whom depended on a man’s wealth (namely, Lefroy’s) to survive, and two, because of his quick wit and vivacity. Jane Austen herself was the model for Darcy, energetic amongst her close friends and family, but rather reserved in public and “secretly thinking herself above the others”, as Lefroy points out at the first ball he and Jane dance at.

I found this film brilliant and loved watching the real life events that Jane incorporated into her novels, from the creation of Elinor and Marianne to the inspiration for Lady Catherine de Bourgh (wasn’t Maggie Smith perfectly detestable?). Oh, and the absolutely aching romance, the painful desire and need between Jane and Tom, good god. I think my heart caught in my throat during the dance scene when she finally saw Lefroy before her.

And did anyone notice, pulling themselves away from the engrossing romance, the gorgeous costumes? The fabulous mix of looks as fashion transitioned, at the end of the 1700s, from structured Georgian gowns to the Greek-inspired, flowing Regency?

I’m so glad I caught this before it went out of theatres.