Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Becoming (and Reinventing) Jane

The film Becoming Jane is based on the supposed early romantic life of author Jane Austen (Anne Hathaway) and her possible flirtation and thwarted elopement with Thomas Langlois Lefroy (Scottish actor James McAvoy), a struggling law student dependent on a wealthy uncle who also supports Tom's family in Ireland.

It is said to be inspired by real events depicted in the book Becoming Jane Austen by Jon Spence who also served as the historical consultant on the film. It's directed by Julian Jarrold whose claim to fame is as the director of British TV series such as Great Expectations (1999) and White Teeth (2002), and his 2005 movie Kinky Boots.

I won't subject the film to the type of a scrutiny that will try to determine if it is historically accurate. I don't think that's fair to the film - it doesn't purport to be a documentary but a work of fiction - although I do admit membership in that large, and rather rabid, fan club which claims Jane Austen as one of their own.

The film realistically recreates what we believe to be Jane's life in the late 18th c.: her "oddity" as a female author and the discomfort that it creates for some in her small, country society; the unfair inheritance laws that effectively shut her out of a means of financial support when her parents die; the beauty and simplicity of her Hampshire country life; and, the constraints and challenges for one as bright and spirited as Jane was reported to be.

At first glance, Anne Hathaway appears too pretty to play Jane Austen and James McAvoy is, frankly, too plain to play the dashing Darcy stand-in Tom Lefroy. But there is real chemistry between the two and they do make you believe that these two unlikely persons, who clash so violently at first, could fall passionately in love, plan an elopement to Scotland and are appropriately crushed when they fail to consummate their plan.

There are intriguing bits too that you don't expect: Jane's gentle and loving relationship with her deaf brother; her brother Henry's secret love for their first cousin Eliza; a glimpse of the elder Bennetts' tomfoolery in bed; Tom's pugilistic battles, and, Henry and Tom's forays into brothels. I don't imagine we'd see these depicted on BBC remakes.

The only false note in the film, for me, is the enormous leap forward in time at the end where ... cut to "middle aged", tired looking Jane, famous author and unmarried woman, once again meeting Tom, now married well and father of a daughter. The aging makeup is silly and makes both look ill rather than older.

And the writers, Kevin Hood and Sarah Williams, didn't seem to trust their own ending ... they insist on showing us that Jane survives, is proud of her accomplishments and achieves fame in her lifetime. That even though she loved and lost Tom she is still independent and successful. Thank you for that Women's Studies 101 confirmation of the indomitable female spirit but the filmmakers are preaching to the converted aren't they? Whatever her disappointments, real or imagined, Jane Austen was an enormous success however you may want to measure success.

I don't think it's giving too much away to say that Jane never marries (as all the rabid Jane Austenites know). Slate.com has an interesting, if slightly huffy, article called "See Jane Elope"about why we insist on creating a romantic past for Jane which likely did not exist. I don't think that's too hard to fathom.

Austen, as she so often depicted in her novels, seemed to suggest that a marriage between two equals (with a spirited, loving, respectful husband) was the achievement of a kind of heaven here on earth. Why wouldn't we, her readers, wish this for Jane herself?

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