Imagining a Far-From-Plain Jane

Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen and James McAvoy as Tom Lefroy in the circumstantial-fact-based romantic drama
Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen and James McAvoy as Tom Lefroy in the circumstantial-fact-based romantic drama "Becoming Jane." (Colm Hogan - Miramax Films)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 3, 2007

Little-known facts about the brilliant English Regency novelist Jane Austen: She was (a) a babe; (b) a hot dancer; (c) a Girl Who Just Wanted to Have Fun.

That's the argument of Julian Jarrold's new "Becoming Jane," which manages to be both literate and wacky at once.

The movie, earnest and not quite charmless, takes off from a brief surviving couple of passages in letters Austen wrote her sister Cassandra in which she admitted to flirting with a visiting Irish law student named Tom Lefroy. But there's no account anywhere of an actual crazed, frenzied, heavy-breathing, kissing-by-moonlight affair that the movie imagines, proceeding so far as to dramatize the haunted lovers running away to flout society's moribund rules.

So I expect the Janeites who love the author will feel themselves ill-served by the film, which appears to have even less basis in fact than "Shakespeare in Love" or, to go back even further in time in the genre of writers' biographies, Greg Peck as Feodor Dostoevski in 1949's "The Great Sinner." As for the rest of us, the question is simpler -- is it worth the eight bucks?

I would vote yes, primarily on the basis of performance. If "Becoming Jane" is a little light in the head, it gives the young American actress Anne Hathaway a chance to show herself off more delightfully than she did in "The Devil Wears Prada," while allowing Scots bad boy James McAvoy to get himself even closer to the coveted rank of A-list stud as he does a passing imitation of Albert Finney's lascivious importuning in the great "Tom Jones." And the rest of the cast has the languid brilliance of most made-in-England productions, with the great Maggie Smith, Julie Walters, Ian Richardson and the excellent American James Cromwell walking around in wigs and frocks and what have you. The rustic English country houses, the glorious English countryside, the rolling English hills, those dark, romantic woods that could conceal guerrillas as easily as poets, all are oh so easy on the eye.

The gist of the story is that our Tom -- he went on to become the chief justice of Ireland -- was a wild youth, a kind of Jonesian rake, all for the squeezing of anything round and plump, from apples to grapes to peaches to, er, the round and plump parts of a woman described in the credits as a "wine whore." What does that mean -- she'll do anything for a '74 Lafite-Rothschild?

In danger of being kicked out of his London law apprenticeship, he is sent by his imperious uncle (Richardson, who does imperiousness brilliantly) to the country, where his cutting-edge wardrobe (those black taffeta waistcoats do the trick every time) and wit and macho style (he's a good athlete, loves to bare-knuckle box) make him the hot item in the eyes of Austen.

So the movie attempts to evoke a Jane Austen-type relationship between Austen and Lefroy, even going so far as to imply that Lefroy was the model for Mr. Darcy in "Pride and Prejudice," arrogant and aloof upon first encounter but later mellowing into someone more passionate and romantic. When they start out fencing snidely with each other, probing for weakness, looking for petty victory in parlor wit and dinner table jousting, you think: Kids, get a room.

In those times, of course, before you got the room, you had to get to the church on time. The movie makes a point that Austen made herself, that the system that denied young women any access to the means of production meant that they had to marry someone of class with a few bucks or they were thought horrendous failures and cruel burdens to families that had to support them. This was particularly true of the impoverished clergy of the sort the Rev. George Austen (Cromwell as Jane's father) represented. It also gave social power to young bachelors who could be choosy (though they were of course encouraged to marry for money, not love, as well) and to those who controlled young men. Thus Lady Gresham (Smith), the aunt of the dim but decent and wealthy Mr. Wisley (Laurence Fox), another (if entirely fictitious) Austen suitor, makes a fine villainess, a Cruella De Vil of the social world. She enjoys her corrupt power and connives to keep or even increase it at the expense of the flotsam and jetsam of society like the Austens, rich in beautiful daughters, but cash-poor -- as Mrs. Austen (Waters) makes clear when she sniffs self-piteously, "Look. I have to pick my own potatoes."

Through all this, Hathaway hath a way with quip, rejoinder, uplifted eyebrow, pursed lips, and the silence that kills. Keira Knightley would have been better, of course, or any of a dozen English actresses, but Hathaway brings no shame to herself. I found her a bit cowed by Meryl Streep's rapturous vileness in "Prada," but here, among so many exquisite talents, she holds the camera and the movie. And she's one of the very few Americans who can get away with a British accent in the presence of actual Brits. McAvoy is, one supposes, an acquired taste; I can't get over seeing him as the faun in "The Chronicles of Narnia," and even in "The Last King of Scotland" he seemed frail and wan. Here, he's aged, glows, plays a bounder tamed by love quite well.

Of course, if you know how Jane Austen's short life (41 years) turned out, you know where the movie has to go. At least it's not revisionist; it clings to an old-Hollywood value, portraying its star-crossed lovers not as corrupt but as too noble for happiness. They'd rather please their souls than their libidos, one reason why now is so different than then.

Becoming Jane (115 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for brief nudity and mild profanity.

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