March 7, 2008

Reviewed by Jason Davis

There is a steadily growing sub-genre of films that take a historical figure, mines their artistic output for key events, and then assembles a narrative that explains why they were who they were and wrote what they wrote. If there’s a name for this sort of storytelling — encompassing such diverse films as Shakespeare in Love, Copying Beethoven, and Becoming Jane — I am unaware of its designation. Whatever the case, it is an arguably entertaining way to get to grips with long-dead icons of our literary legacy and Becoming Jane, however accurate, is an entertaining romance about a surprisingly modern young woman constrained by the customs of an era she’s out grown.

The story proceeds from the notion, forwarded by Jon Spence in his biography Becoming Jane Austen, that the regency writer had a never-forgotten affair with future Irish jurist Thomas Lefroy and that her literary output would forever bare the fingerprints of their romance. Screenwriters Kevin Hood and Sarah Williams have liberally sprinkled aspects of the Austen cannon throughout the script to illustrate how the young authoress cannibalized her own experiences for her prose. At first glance, Lefroy is the very image of Pride and Prejudice’s Mr. Darcy while the overall arc of Austen’s relationship with him plays like a version of Persuasion sans happy ending.

Anne Hathaway brings a fierce intelligence and understated impishness to Austen that echoes the author’s voice in her fiction. James McAvoy provides a perfect foil in Lefroy and manages to overturn the audience’s expectations with each succeeding appearance as his charm shines through his haughty exterior. The supporting cast is a veritable catalogue of quality thespians with James Cromwell essaying the role of the Reverend Austen with an understanding that clearly foreshadows the benevolent Mr. Bennett in Pride and Prejudice. Julie Walters shows a completely different side of motherhood than she exhibits in the Harry Potter films while Maggie Smith and the late Ian Richardson (who died during production) revel in the sort of eccentric roles Austen often littered throughout her work. Special mention should go to Anna Maxwell Martin and Lucy Cohu, who uplift every scene they appear in.

Beautifully shot on location in Ireland by cinematographer Eigil Bryld and beautifully designed by Eve Stewart, the production is a feast for the eyes and the DVD image captures every pixel of the splendor. Adrian Johnston’s score is a thing of beauty and anchors an immersive Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that features a surprising density of sounds. The mix never relaxes as the characters venture into “the pretty sort of wilderness” near the Austen rectory and the viewer is drawn into the environment by the excellent aural design. Hood is joined by director Julian Jarrold and producer Robert Bernstein for an informative commentary. The production-based information therein is supplemented by historical and biographical trivia presented on screen. A brief featurette chronicles the film’s production and a handful of deleted scenes showcase what was snipped.

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