An ersatz “Pride and Prejudice” in all but name, “Becoming Jane” is a finely tooled Brit-lit costumer that, like Anne Hathaway’s flawless accent as the young Austen, lacks only that final convincing 5%. Taking the few facts known about a “romantic encounter” between the budding young scribe and a dashing Irishman, pic cleverly constructs a scenario that closely parallels the original (and especially the superb 2005 film) while also proposing the inspirational roots for the novel and Austen’s subsequent oeuvre. Pic should click with upscale auds — though, like an impeccable copy, it’s no substitute for the real thing.
Film — which opens wide in the U.K. today and is skedded for an Aug. 3 Stateside release via Miramax — is likely to skew slightly older than Working Title’s “Pride & Prejudice,” which played up the youthfulness of the characters in the novel. Though only 23 at the time of filming, Hathaway comes across as a considerably more mature, less emotionally fragile character than the 20-year-old she’s playing, and overall the movie, smoothly helmed by ex-TV director Julian Jarrold (“Kinky Boots”), remains within the boundaries of the genre rather than trying to push the envelope.
Both the novel and the 2005 Keira Knightley starrer are strongly evoked in the opening reels, which draw Jane (Hathaway) as the slightly pesky daughter of the Rev. Austen (James Cromwell) and his wife (Julie Walters) in rural Hampshire, southern England. A bundle of barely suppressed creative energy, whether playing piano while her elders are trying to sleep or scribbling heated prose, Jane is clearly not your average country vicar’s daughter in socially prescribed, late 18th-century Blighty.
While elder sister Cassandra (Anna Maxwell Martin) is comfortably engaged, Jane resists being paired off with Mr. Wisley (Laurence Fox), the blank-faced nephew of Lady Gresham (Maggie Smith). “His fortune will not buy me,” says Jane. In dialogue typical of Sarah Williams and Kevin Hood’s script, which smartly evokes the flavor of Austen’s prose, mom later reminds her that “affection is desirable; money is absolutely indispensable.”
Enter young Irishman Tom Lefroy (Scottish thesp James McAvoy, with a British accent), a trainee lawyer of Jane’s age. He’s an intelligent but penniless lad from Limerick with big-city airs and dandy duds to go with them; she’s clearly attracted to him but defensively tries to shut him out as he mocks her femme pulp-literature aspirations.
Suggesting, suggestively, that Jane needs to “widen” her horizons if she’s to succeed as a writer, Tom gives her a copy of “Tom Jones” to read and intros her to his favorite sport, bare-knuckle boxing. Without overplaying the sexual undercurrents, Hathaway and McAvoy show real chemistry together in these sequences. And as in the 2005 movie, two gatherings (a local dance and a splashier ball) provide social arenas for their growing relationship.
That’s just the first hour of a slightly overlong yarn that parallels the novel while working as a straightforward (and necessarily doomed) romance within the social constrictions of the period. While always very watchable, it’s only during the extended coda, set years later, that the picture really packs an emotional punch, belatedly going its own way rather than trying to cover several bases at the same time.
Credits at all levels are pretty much impeccable. Hathaway again shows talent way beyond her age and “The Princess Diaries,” and, like Cromwell, blends well into the seasoned cast of Brit players. Thesps strongly evoke their de facto characters from the novel, especially Smith (in the Lady Catherine role), Walters (Mrs. Bennet) and Leo Bill (as a creepy William Collins type). With no obvious counterpart in the novel, Ian Richardson brings some dramatic heft to Judge Langlois, Tom’s stern uncle-cum-employer.
Widescreen lensing by Eigil Bryld of rural Ireland (repping Hampshire) and Dublin (repping London) has a fully saturated look that always engages the eyes; ditto production and costume design, which look right for the period but have less of a realist flavor than the 2005 pic. Adrian Johnston’s modal score does the job but is thematically unmemorable.