Miramax // 2007 // 120 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Dennis Prince (Retired) // March 3rd, 2008
"Ladies, of course, must obey."
Even a casual glance at Jane Austen's writings -- her letters or her widely read novels -- conveys her unusual sense of social rightness delivered with a bitingly satirical delivery. She skillfully wove a tapestry of taunts aimed the social mores of her time, causing her targets to smirk slyly only later to ponder whether the joke was on them. But how does a young novelist of the 18th Century hone such intellect and awareness? Well, if you believe the writers of Becoming Jane, it all revolves around an uncharacteristic heartsickness for a penniless suitor, one that would initially deride her only later to desire her in a way that unlocked the full boiling emotion that lay deep within her.
Can you believe it? Well, neither can I.
The youngest daughter of the Reverend George Austen (James Cromwell, Babe), Jane (Anne Hathaway, The Devil Wears Prada) is, shall we say, difficult to encounter, driven by her own independent thinking and penchant to speak out of turn as if she possessed ideas of her own. Scoff at the notion. But Jane raises more than mere scoffs when she refuses to be married off to the eligible bachelor of a wealthy family, any wealthy family, as was practice of the day. Elsewhere, young Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy, Atonement) is being verbally routed by his uncle, Judge Langlois (Ian Richardson, From Hell) who asserts the snobbish nephew is to spend some time in the country, boarding nearby the Austens. Immediately he snubs Jane when he rebuffs a reading of one of her writings. Incensed, Jane takes pleasure in confronting Lefroy in social situations, whether it through verbal sparring during a ball or physically besting him in a game of cricket. But this conflict that both eagerly engage in soon turns to fascination and, ultimately, infatuation. But Lefroy is penniless and his uncle forbids a relationship with the uncouth Jane. The young girl's headstrong nature, however, prevents her from surrendering to the insistences of those around her and she pursues Lefroy as he pursues her, unknowingly unlocking an even greater self-awareness that would result in a collection of the most widely read novels in all of literature.
As the saying goes, this one is certainly "loosely based" on historic fact. If you're looking for a reliable biography of this important writer, you'll have to look far, far beyond Becoming Jane. An excerpt from a letter to her sister Cassandra indicates mention of a Tom Lefroy, one who was the brief recipient of flirtatious indulgence. From this scrap of fact comes this heap of inference. It is well known that the real Jane Austen never married and, therefore, comes the impetus for this dime-store tell-all. Hathaway and McAvoy are good in their roles and the arc they are forced to journey as Jane and Lefroy, but it all stinks of gross caricature that lacks subtlety in its motivation, instead seeking out every possible villain to accuse for its hackneyed evolution. Watch for Maggie Williams (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) as the shrewish Lady Gresham who screeches at Jane to submit to the proposal from young Mr. Wisley (Laurence Fox, Gosford Park). Similarly, the late Ian Richardson snarls at Lefroy and young Jane in a well-portrayed but poorly developed character.
As it unravels its two-dimensional sensibility, Becoming Jane is hardly elegant in its establishment of unimaginatively polarized characters, Jane and Lefroy. Their penchant for ever-heightened one-upmanship on the social field of play is genuinely unremarkable in its neo-feminist bias. While we would like to ponder Tom as the spark that ignites Jane's literary fire, the narrative cannot shrug its early premise that it is spite that spurs young Miss Austen to develop her legendary craft. With that, the film immediately and consistently positions itself as love-hate entanglement that is delivered in expectation of titillating female viewers suffering from internal struggles of suppression exacerbated by external expectations of social obedience. While it could be considered charming in its own unpolished way, it's a premise that's hardly becoming of such an iconic figure as Jane Austen.
What's most difficult to swallow in this film is the proposition that the incurably insistent Jane could actually swooned over a presumptuous and pompous sort like Lefroy. While he brings out her most extremely competitive -- even tomboyish -- nature, we're implored to believe that he will also emerge as the secret love that completed the formation of her incisive intellect through a cloistered dalliance. Although we can accept this as a clearly fictional imagining of a potential romance in young Jane's life, the lack of sophistication in the development and delivery of this endeavor is certainly contradictory to all that Miss Austen personifies through her celebrated writings.
On Blu-ray disc, Becoming Jane is very well dressed, giving a definite polish to its unrefined content. The 2.35:1 widescreen image is presented in decidedly crisp fashion thanks to an impressive VC-1 encoded transfer. The color palette is well represented, if intentionally muted, to give lustrous texture to the landscapes and period costumes of the day. Black levels are well managed with plenty of shadow detail visible (although there are a handful of instances when crush occurs). The audio is presented in a PCM 5.1 Uncompressed mix that renders the soundtrack very well and manages to utilize all channels to decent effect in establishing settings by way of discretely directional and ambient effects. The dialog is solidly anchored in the center and front channels, as it should be.
Extras on this disc begin with an audio commentary that teams up director Julian Jarrold, writer Kevin Hood, and producer Robert Bernstein. It's a revelatory track in a way the three likely didn't intend, freely sharing how they skewed historical situations and facts to best suit the production. There's an option to likewise enable a pop-up trivia track that will reveal additional Jane factoids throughout the film's runtime (a Blu-ray exclusive). Discovering the Real Jane Austen is a 17-minute featurette that serves as a surfacy making-of piece. Lastly, 13 deleted scenes, amounting to just over 19 minutes, are also included but don't reveal much value had they been left within the final cut.
While Becoming Jane may have appeal to contemporary audiences -- largely female -- seeking a Harlequin Romance sort of haughtiness and naughtiness, this is hardly the sort of treatment to apply to the accomplished Jane Austen. Rather than watch this film, this court suggests all present read one of Austen's books instead.
Review content copyright © 2008 Dennis Prince; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* PCM 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 120 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Audio commentary
* "Discovering the Real Jane Austen"
* Deleted scenes
* Pop-up fact track
* Official Site