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August 8-14, 2007

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'Becoming Jane'

Colm Hagen/Courtesy Miramax Pictures
Persuasive: English novelist Jane Austen (Anne Hathaway) learns about the world of men and letters in 'Becoming Jane.'

Austen Power

Anne Hathaway takes up pen and paper to portray beloved author

By Richard von Busack

OF THE THREE recent biopics, including one of Goya and one of Molière, Becoming Jane turns out to be the most satisfactory. Bafflingly, the seemingly dullest life turns out to be the most interesting. Molière focused on the least-glittering days of the playwright's life. Milos Forman portrayed Goya as a sort of impotent Scandinavian U.N. observer in war-torn Spain. Julian Jarrold's Becoming Jane takes a better course, fictionalizing the nearest thing Austen had to a romance, her encounter with one Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy).

In early scenes, Jarrold expands what may have been a casual flirtation into unambiguous single entendre comments, such as the news that the horizons of a female novelist "need to be widened." And then Tom lends Jane a copy of Fielding's Tom Jones. So that's what he meant.

Lefroy, eclipsed by Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland, has his best part so far. He proves himself a good proto-D'Arcy; in London, he wenches, carouses and goes in for bare-knuckled boxing (at last, that fist-fight scene every man's wanted to see in a Jane Austen movie). To cool the boy down, his dismayed uncle, a judge (a fine last role for Ian Richardson), sends Tom into the country to stay with his relative Lady Gresham (Maggie Smith). To let us know what a dire fate that is, the scene is introduced by a moment of the uncle in court, sentencing a felon to be transported to Australia.

Austenland isn't as remote as Australia, but it's remote enough. Becoming Jane's soggy Hampshire (played by Ireland) is a place where the walls are damp, the piano is out of tune and the mirrors are all losing their silvering. The woods around are marshy and dank. Even the great house in the area—where Lady Gresham rules the roost— has moss in its reflecting pool.

One wants to applaud the lack of visual splendor. Here is a lived-in past in the same way some of our brighter science-fiction directors create a lived-in future. There was a deliberate air of the second-rate in the most recent Pride & Prejudice; to make the story physical, Keira Knightley was rosily flushed in the face during the dancing sequence. But the hillbillying-up of Austen went a little too far, what with the hog's bollocks and so forth.

Becoming Jane is more restrained. The best moments come in the party before Tom's last night in town. It begins in violet twilight with Lady Gresham's manor lit with a row of outdoor candles. The contra dance inside is not too elegant. It's a crunch, a little like a theater crowd trying to find its seats before the curtain. The camera is rack-focused to zero in on the couple and achieve intimacy amid hubbub; the out-of-focus crowds behind her serve to remind us that Jane is never to be left alone with a man—though she can still get a glance in. Jarrold does deliver some craftily composed shots, particularly a departure and an arrival framed in the small square rear window of a departing stagecoach. But the glancing camera takes the stiffness and the costume party right out of Becoming Jane.

The film is lucky in the choice of its Austen, Anne Hathaway. The engines of cinema consume hundreds of sweet fresh faces, so something else must have kept Hathaway around for more than a couple of films. Maybe it's her coltishness. She's a little awkward, playing a girl unused to London and Londoners—the mouth and eyes are too big for customary glamour. Jarrold gives her a kind of jock scene here, too, making her wield the bat at a game of cricket: probably it's a reprise of the baseball game in The Princess Diaries.

Watching McAvoy and Hathaway trade observations and kisses is good enough (one has to tune out Adrian Johnston's soundtrack, with those woodwinds burbling away every time something roguish happens), but Becoming Jane also has sturdy supporting work in it. Smith turns in another of those formidable old icicle-aunts that she plays better than anyone. James Cromwell appears as Jane's father, accurately described as "an obscure and impecunious parson." Maybe the saddest moment is Cromwell's noble old face collapsing as he receives terrible news in a letter.

A subsidiary business in the film is the story of a well-off French countess called Eliza who wants to help herself to Austen's brother. If Lucy Cohu's Eliza is supposed to illustrate the tragedy of young people forced to marry for money, Jarrold should have cast someone older, colder and wearier—Cohu is enticingly wicked. During a trip to London, Jane visits the author Mrs. Radcliffe (Helen McCrory), and the one scene partly amplifies the problem of solitude on the nerves. McCrory has a subtle air of distraction, as if a lady in the dubious business of writing for a living always needed to be looking over her shoulder.

As for this historical accuracy of this film, there is slight evidence of the Austen-Lefroy intrigue; wishful thinking declares that more might have been found in Austen's correspondence, if Jane's sister Cassandra hadn't burned it. One doubts if Austen was ever halfway to running off to Gretna Green with anyone, but it's easy to suspend the disbelief for the length of a well-drawn fiction, starring an actress of mesmerizing prettiness.

Movie Times Becoming Jane (PG; 120 min.), directed by Julian Jarrold, written by Kevin Hood and Sarah Williams, photographed by Eigil Bryld and starring Anne Hathaway and James McAvoy, opens Aug. 10.

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