Movie Review: Jane
By Tasha Robinson, Special to the Tribune
Biopics about artists often fall into the bad habit of explaining away the creative process. There's a certain "oh, I get it" satisfaction in the suggestion that William Shakespeare wrote "Romeo And Juliet" because he was himself a star-crossed lover (see "Shakespeare In Love"), or that Frida Kahlo painted distorted versions of herself solely because that's what she saw in the mirror during a long convalescence ("Frida"), or that Byron and Shelley actually lived out the dark fantasies of their writings ("Gothic").
But the idea that every work of art has direct, identifiable roots in reality is too simplistic. And in film and fiction alike, it leads to a scavenger-hunt approach to biography, as complicated lives are reduced to a sequence of possible clues.
But the biggest problem with this approach may be the way it turns biopics into second-hand versions of the artists' work. That's the major issue with "Becoming Jane," a film that reinvents British writer Jane Austen into a character in a broad Austen pastiche. A great deal about her life remains unknown, and screenwriters Sarah Williams and Kevin Hood largely fill in the blanks with bits from "Pride And Prejudice," fashioning her parents from the Bennets, her crush object Tom Lefroy from Mr. Darcy, judgmental aristocrat Lady Gresham from Catherine de Bourgh, and so on.
The film suggests that Austen (played by Anne Hathaway) was a version of "Pride" protagonist Elizabeth Bennet, raised by a doting father into a scandalous-for-the-era independence. When she meets Lefroy (James McAvoy), she detests his judgmental arrogance, but after a thoroughly Austen-inspired series of snappish confrontations, she falls in love with him, only to face a series of financial and social barriers.
Their relationship plays out in the expected Regency-era costume-drama ways, during dances at balls and strolls through the woods. It certainly reads like something Austen might have concocted. But Williams and Hood substitute a dour rigidity for Austen's wry humor and elaborate verbal fireworks, and director Julian Jarrold ("Kinky Boots") matches their seriousness.
At least the muted tone minimizes the melodrama. And the solid cast and honest Austen scholarship make "Becoming Jane" fitfully entertaining. But it's hard for the film to escape the shadow of Austen's superior talent when it filches so much from her books. And by implying that every aspect of her work came directly from life, it sells her creativity short. The filmmakers clearly respect Austen. So why present her as a mere stenographer, dutifully taking dictation from the world around her?
Directed by Julian Jarrold; screenplay by Sarah Williams and Kevin Hood; photographed by Eigil Bryld; edited by Emma Hickox; music by Adrian Johnston; production design by Eve Stewart; produced by Graham Broadbent, Robert Bernstein and Douglas Rae. A Miramax release. Running time: 1:52. MPAA rating: PG (mild language, brief nudity).
Jane Austen - Anne Hathaway
Tom Lefroy - James McAvoy
Lady Gresham - Maggie Smith
Mr. Wisley - Laurence Fox