“That girl needs a husband!” exclaims Mrs. Austen (Julie Walters). Ah yes, this would be the problem for young Jane (Anne Hathaway), who doesn’t show nearly enough interest in securing a future. Indeed, as the start of Becoming Jane reveals, she appears surrounded by bucolic beauty (tall trees, happy piglets, tinkling brooks) but focused on her work. She’s a scribbler of stories, her pale ink-stained fingers rendered in telling close-up, who manages her brief writer’s blocks by pounding piano keys first thing in the morning.
The pressure is — apparently perpetually — on Jane to marry, as her sister Cassandra (Anna Maxwell Martin) is engaged to a most serious and suitable young man, and the income of their father, the Reverend Mr. Henry Austen (James Cromwell), cannot support the family indefinitely. Not to mention the problem presented by Jane’s brother Henry (Joe Anderson), whose pursuit of an older woman, Eliza De Feuillide (Lucy Cohu), won’t ensure his family’s reputations and fortunes. Though they all seem content among the pigs and babbling brooks, the Austens are also well aware of the stigma borne by single women. And so they worry about Jane, who appears determined to reject suitable young men just because she’s not in love with them.
Case in point: the more or less charming Mr. Wisley (Laurence Fox), favorite nephew of the Austens’ wealthy neighbor Lady Gresham (Maggie Smith). Though her mother approves and Lady Gresham will consent, Jane holds out, imagining still that she will be swept away by a grand emotion. Her desire for love over commerce, the movie submits, the desire that will eventually be delineated and dissected in her novels, is here spelled out in the most mundane terms possible.
The problem is tone. Where Austen’s work is famously and delightfully wry, observing the foibles of her social set with a mostly fond irony, Julian Jarrold’s fictionalized biopic offers up big-boomy melodrama, full of broken hearts, romantic montages, and predictable plot turns. This Jane falls hard for a city boy, rowdy barrister-to-be and bare-knuckle fighter Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy). Smart-ass and dashing in a Mr. Darcy sort of way, he’s also penniless, dependent for his own livelihood on the self-righteous Judge Langlois (Ian Richardson). Tom doesn’t precisely lack ambition, but he’s fond a certain niche: if he’s late to his law classes, he’s having good times at night, fighting, gambling, and enjoying himself with assorted ladies of the night. Because he’s clever, he can afford to burn the candle from both ends, unlike his more assiduous and generally anxious fellows.
In a word, Tom is an apt foil for Jane, who is, you’ve seen, both assiduous and clever. Their first meeting is aptly tense, as he falls asleep while she reads from her own work, unimpressed by her girlish imaginings. Within days, he’s educating her: “Experience is vital,” he says, if she wishes to be equal with male authors. “I know more of the world, your horizons must be widened by an extraordinary young man.” He’s kidding, sort of, but oh, oh, thank goodness Tom’s available! He gives Jane a copy of Tom Jones to read, expanding her literary, sensual, and imaginative horizons. Soon enough, they’re appreciating one another’s humor and company, and yes, it is wondrous that Jane can be so rightly edified by this cocky fellow. Can their desperate unhappiness be far behind?
Indeed, Becoming Jane features plenty of unhappiness, not all Jane’s, and none of it especially witty or original. Though she displays fortitude and intelligence when sparring with elders or others who expect her to “behave,” Jane is nonetheless stuck inside a formula. When the stuffy Judge Langlois assures her that “Irony is insult with a smiling face,” Jane comes back, asserting that it is, instead, “the coming the together of two contradictory truths.” Excellent to think so, but the movie doesn’t grant her a chance to work out the concept. Rather, Jane believes in her romance so completely that she’s surprised when it founders. And so, she becomes herself.
Much like Miss Potter, in which the charms and devotions of the titular author (played by Renée Zellweger) were explicated and motivated by her imagined personal life, this film suggests that lively fictions by women are inspired by men. Specifically, by the loss of men. Plainly fabricated to suit contemporary notions of romance and results, the conventions are tedious. Whether true or not, they are not nearly so bright or inspiring as what Austen became, in her own words.