119 years after her death Jane Austin remains one of the most indemand writers in Hollywood. Although she only wrote six novels, but IMDB lists no fewer than 39 adaptations of her work for the screen. The appetite for her work is so fierce that now that the books have been made, re-made, adapted once again and updated a la Bridget Jones’ Diary, filmmakers have found a new source of Austinonia to exploit—her letters. Becoming Jane, a new movie starring The Devil Wears Prada’s Anne Hathaway at Austin and James Last King of Scotland McAvoy as Tom Lefroy , the only man she ever really loved.
Hathaway plays Austin as a 22 year old who must decide between marrying for love or for money. Her paramour Lefroy is a penniless lawyer in training, who, while rakishly charming, must depend on an allowance from his rich uncle to survive. Mr. Wisley (Laurence Fox) a socially awkward but wealthy young man is in love with the pretty Jane, and hopes that one day her affection for him will blossom. Not likely. She’s head over heels for Lefroy, even though her mother tells her, “Affection is desirable, money is absolutely indispensable.”
Becoming Jane is an affecting portrait, in a Masterpiece Theatre kind of way, of the early years of one of the world’s most beloved authors. Based on her letters to her sister Cassandra it is rich with the kind of details abou6t her life that should win over Austin-heads, while more casual viewers may enjoy the romantic twists and turns of the plot. Hathaway is fine in the title role, and avoids the wrinkled-nose mannered kind of performance that ultimately sucked a lot of the fun out of Renee Zellweger’s performance as Beatrix Potter earlier this year. She plays the young Austin as a headstrong woman with much more verve than is usually ascribed to her. Despite the mannerisms of the time—the curtseys etc—Hathaway plays Austin as a thoroughly modern woman trapped in a pre-feminist world.
Her chemistry with McAvoy is strong, much like the prickly dynamics between Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy in Pride & Prejudice. He makes the most of his naturally raffish smile and charming manner handing in a performance that sparkles but actually digs a little deeper to really bring the playboy he’s portrayed as in the script to life. When the story switches from romantic cat and mouse to romantic tragedy and McAvoy’s true feelings for Jane are revealed it’s a touching and well played moment.
Becoming Jane may disturb Austinophiles who might feel that the writer’s name has been exploited to sell a story that is essentially a costume drama with none of the wit and finesse of an actual Austin story, but less fanatical eyes will find a likeable, although slight romance about the true nature of love.