Judge Christopher Kulik loves many Janes: Fonda, Seymour, Adams, Drebin, etc. However, he only loves one Austen.
Our review of Becoming Jane (Blu-Ray), published March 3rd, 2008, is also available.
Jane Austen's most extraordinary romance was her own.
"Novels? Being poor, insipid things read by mere women even, God forbid,
written by mere women? As if the writing of women did not display the greatest
powers of mind, knowledge of human nature, the liveliest effusions of wit and
humor and the best chosen language imaginable?"—Jane Austen
Jane Austen knew what the definition of irony was. In fact, most of her male contemporaries had no doubt misused the word and would depend on her to correct them. In Becoming Jane, there is a pivotal moment when Austen gives a perfect definition of the word, which insults the intelligence of a high-ranking judge. Taking it as a gibe, he refuses to give consent to his nephew to marry this "ironical little authoress." This is one of many qualities about the real Austen that the film explores, even if much of the story is almost entirely fictional. As a matter of fact, Becoming Jane is presented like an unwritten novel by Austen—with her as the main character—and it actually works. Complementing the recent reviews of Persuasion (2007) and The Jane Austen Book Club, we shall now take a look at the breathtaking, beautifully-made Becoming Jane, which comes to DVD courtesy of Miramax.
Facts of the Case
In Steventon, England, a 20-year-old Jane Austen (Anne Hathaway, The Devil Wears Prada,
Jane's world is soon visited by Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy, The Last King of Scotland), a rambunctious law student and part-time boxer who has a problem with dilatoriness, which is seriously upsetting his uncle. In fact, not only is he late for a gathering at his family's house, but he also falls asleep to a reading by Jane. He considers Jane's prose to be a bit juvenile for his taste and she, in turn, writes so negatively about Lefroy…with one too many adjectives. Still, she discovers a certain sexual magnetism about Lefroy, who thinks she needs "experience" in order for her to match the "brilliance of a male author." So he decides to expand her horizons by giving her Tom Jones to read. However, Jane is more interested in writing about how people truly think and act, as well as the reasoning behind their actions.
Eventually, Tom and Jane begin a passionate romance, which inspires her to write "First Impressions"—which would eventually become known as her masterpiece Pride and Prejudice.
While Becoming Jane may not be altogether historically accurate, it does manage to give us a sense of what Austen was like through her letters and novels. All of her books were published anonymously, so she never really got the fame she so richly deserved during her short life of 41 years. Then again, the times had restricted women to remain in the household and not be involved in politics, labor, or literature. Tradition held that women should marry young to gain a certain status, and those that refused faced a future of uncertainty—and their best chance of financial survival was working as a servant or maid. Even though she had no rights like others of her gender, Jane Austen was certainly ahead of her time, as all she wanted independence and happiness. She may not have read the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft, though she felt that women deserved a place in the literary world, which was dominated by men. Instead of relying on marriage, she would rely on a pen to support herself. As a result, she wrote six novels, and many of them did not get wide acclaim until well into the 20th century.
The majority of Becoming Jane is about the romance between Jane Austen and Tom Lefroy, which is said to have taken place from late 1795 to early 1796. The film suggests that this courtship was what drove Austen to write her novels, though it would be many years later before one of them was actually published. However, the filmmakers even mention during the audio commentary that they never intended the film to be a biography, or even say that it's based on actual events. Little is known of Austen's life anyway, though it is true that she was romantically involved with a real man named Tom Lefroy. In a sense, that is all this largely fictional film needs to tell a story, and the screenplay by TV scribes Kevin Hood and Sarah Williams succeeds for the most part. Drawing from a number of Austen bios (including Jon Spence's Becoming Jane Austen, the writing is literate, utilizing 19th-century English with cinematic dramatization, even if the story surrenders itself in the second half in terms of the consequences of the romance.
As with most period pictures, Becoming Jane is multifarious in terms of capturing time and place. Because of budgetary reasons, director Julian Jarrold (Kinky Boots) decided to shoot in Ireland rather than England; the small exception is the exordium, which does provide actual shots of Steventon. The results are, in a word, stunning, with cinematographer Eigil Byld capturing the country's wondrous, grassy landscape with loving detail. Eve Stewart's production design has depth, though its scope is also limited at times. The costumes by Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaign are elegant, but simple and never flashy, as they should be. Oh, and I should mention the incredible dance choreography by Jane Gibson, who also worked on virtually every Austen adaptation in the past 15 years. While the attention to detail is not as layered or punctuated as much as, say, a Merchant-Ivory production, it's clear that Becoming Jane was made with love, care, and affection. Perhaps the best contribution, though, is by Adrian Johnston, whose classical, romantic score soars with emotion and spirit; he even provided music that Austen actually loved and played on the piano.
Before watching the film, I was admit that I was a bit timorous to see if Anne Hathaway could pull the roll of Austen off…considering the fact that she is American. On top of all that, while I think she is a fine young actress, none of her previous performances or films had particularly "wowed" me. As it turns out, I was more than impressed. Sure, her accent isn't perfect, but it's more than palatable, and her beauty is appropriately toned down for a more "plain" appearance. I especially loved how she used her brown eyes and angelic face for luminous effect. It may not be an Oscar-worthy performance, though she was astonishingly good, and I was even more shocked when I learned of Hathaway's preparation for the role. Being a huge Austen fan herself, she wrote her college senior thesis on the author at Vassar College before Becoming Jane had even been written. She read almost every available biography on Austen, studied her actual letters, as well as learning piano so she could play Austen's favorite pieces of music. On top of everything else, she even learned Austen's handwriting, and many of the closeups of Austen writing is actually Hathaway's own hand! Critics can judge her performance any way they want, but they cannot deny the dedication she had to play Austen; as far as I'm concerned, I think it tremendously enhanced her credibility.
There are no bad performances in Becoming Jane, though the ones by veterans James Cromwell and Dame Maggie Smith could be best described as thankless. The handsome James McAvoy, however, is excellent as Lefroy, as he overcomes stereotype and stiffness. While he made an adequate Tumnus the Faun in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and a solid role opposite Oscar-winner Forrest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland, he is really coming into his own as a romantic leading man with his role here and in the Best Picture nominee Atonement. Matching him and Hathaway is also Julie Walters as the persuasive Mrs. Austen. She commands one scene, in particular, where she goes head-to-head with her daughter about her rejecting Mr. Wisley.
Miramax presents Becoming Jane in its original theatrical presentation of 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, which is clean and sharp for the most part. Some scenes are bit more dark than I expected, and the colors are not as bold as I hoped, though the print is more than acceptable. The audio is available in a DD 5.1 Surround track in English, as well as a 2.0 track in Spanish. Dialogue is easily heard, though subtitles are available in English and Spanish just in case you get intimidated by the occasional 18th-century language. Technically and sonically, the film isn't as rich as it could be, but the flaws are kept to a minimum. Special features are mild, however, starting with an audio commentary by director Julian Jarrold, writer Kevin Hood, and co-producer Robert Bernstein. The track is really drawn out and dry, though there are some good moments with the information being given. There is a second track with facts and footnotes which is even better, providing some historical background as well as details about the film's production. Deleted scenes and a 17-minute behind-the-scenes featurette are also provided, with the latter being informative despite the short running time. There are also some previews of other Miramax releases.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Surprisingly, more of my complaints have to do with the direction than the writing. Julian Jarrold has worked on British TV for more than a decade, and then he made his debut two years ago with the comedy Kinky Boots. Why he decided to shoot several scenes of the film handheld when there appears to be plenty of space to keep the camera mounted is beyond me; it worked for the Bourne movies, though the effect here is more distracting than artistic. There are several indoor scenes where I felt the sunlight from the windows was a little too glaring, and other little touches such as character interruptions which simply don't add up to anything. If I could make one adjuration to Jarrold, however, it would be to be careful with the extreme closeups, as they rarely bring profundity to the work.
Even more than that, the film is sorely lacking as far as comedy is concerned. There is a subtle wit to some scenes, though it largely prefers to remain dramatic, with only the opening sequence having some real humor. The only other quibbles were with the print and special features, and I really think Miramax could have done a lot more here. This is a minor complaint however, as the film is easy on the eyes and there is some good info to uncover in the bonus items.
A ravishing and romantic film that avoids ignominy in every way possible, Becoming Jane is recommended to Janites and non-Janites alike.
Miramax is acquitted and the film is free to go, with no apparent irony. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with Director Julian Jarrold, Writer Kevin Hood, and Producer Robert Bernstein
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