Julian Jarrold/UK/2006; R4
Magna Pacific, NZ$34.95 | Reviewed by Jacob Powell

HOW DID a romantically inexperienced spinster like Jane Austen write arguably the most enduring and compelling romantic literature of all time? This is the question upon which Julian Jarrold’s Becoming Jane cogitates. A late teenage girl of a respectable but fiscally challenged middleclass family, with a quick mind, lively literary wit, and broad streak of independence finds herself with a difficult decision to make. To marry the dull but wealthy and well connected nephew of the ‘neighbourhood nobility’, or to run off with a handsome young Irish rake with little to recommend him but his charms, passion for life and a glimpse of some deeper character. At one point or other in the film she decides on both options!

The film’s premise is based loosely on a recent work by biographer Jon Spence – Becoming Jane Austen: a life (2003). The major (and controversial) new idea is that Jane’s relationship with a young Irishman Tom Lefroy – heretofore understood as being a brief and minor flirtation – was actually an in-depth and elongated experience from which Miss Austen drew the inspiration for what would become the archetypal modern romance novel. Rather than attempt a dry, factual biopic, Jarrold and crew play with this possibility of early romance in Austen’s life projecting her transformation from girl with a clever but juvenile writing hobby into a serious young woman seeking independence by attempting to become a published author.

The screenplay and characterisations borrow heavily (and directly) from Austen’s writings and somewhat from her actual life – though Jarrold and co. go to some lengths to mash-up recognisable characters: for example the Wickham/Darcy mix in Tom Lefroy’s character. In fact, the romance which forms the central storyline is also filched from Pride and Prejudice, thus reinforcing the idea that Austen’s many romantic and tragic plotlines find their primary creative source in her own experience. As an aside, the filmmakers do cleverly illustrate the opposite of this idea in a scene where Jane visits one of her inspirations – a female author who writes romantic adventure tales but whose life is rather dull and spare; the idea that she lives life more in her imaginings rather than writing from experience.

I must admit, when I saw Anne Hathaway (The Devil Wears Prada, Brokeback Mountain) advertised as playing Jane Austen I felt a little cynical. The star of The Princess Diaries? But young Miss Hathaway has won me over. Not only does she act in an assured and convincing manner (if a little over-baked at times), her English accent impresses for an American. Unlike Gwyneth Paltrow whose attempts consist of putting on an extremely nasal version of a ‘posh’ accent, Hathaway manages to bring some nuance to her effort, adding a slight country twang into her reasonably cultured accent. Young up and comer, James McAvoy (Wimbledon, Starter for 10) provides the perfect foil, bringing a good level of exhilaration as the likeable Irish wastrel, Tom Lefroy, who woos, and is in turn wooed, by the spirited young Austen. The supporting cast is filled out by dependable veterans of both stage and screen and nothing stands out as wanting in their performances.

Director, Julian Jarrold, seems a likely chap for the project, having cut his teeth on various BBC television productions (period and contemporary) and made his foray into features with the unique 2005 comedy Kinky Boots. Jarrold’s crew includes regular collaborator Eigil Bryld on Director of Photography duties, Eve Stewart taking the helm on production design, and Eimer Ní Mhaoldomhnaigh (try pronouncing that correctly on the first go!) kitting out the cast in their lived-in looking regency period attire. The team combine their powers to create a richly textured film, which feels lived in rather than fairytale like. There are stains and rumples and evidence of life that, in period pieces, often get the gloss and this is refreshing to watch. Both Stewart and Ní Mhaoldomhnaigh have worked on gritty social realist pieces under the eye of masters like Mike Leigh and Ken Loach which gives them good experience in creating a kind of realism in their settings that gives context to, but doesn’t overtake the story or characters of the film. Bryld’s camerawork is generally excellent throughout. He manages to capture all the beautiful vistas that such a period piece demands while also using interesting techniques to create visual weight to the unfolding cinematic themes. One device that stood out for me was a reciprocal perspective shot through a small grimy window in the rear of a carriage. In one scene the camera looks out into the world from the window and in another the camera peers from the outside world into the carriage through the same small window – shots evoking thoughts of the freedom versus containment which the protagonists face in both the alternatives which form the film’s climactic fulcrum.

Where the project is let down somewhat is in the script and in the execution of the love/hate plot elements. Some of the dialogue feels a bit disjointed and only James McAvoy seems consistently able to inject believability into lines when the phrasing starts to fail. And although it seems clear that Jane and Tom’s romance is supposed to follow the trajectory of Pride and Prejudice protagonists, Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy (which traverses the book from misunderstanding and dislike through to love and respect), the film doesn’t manage to create any believable feeling of animosity between the two. As soon as Hathaway and McAvoy share screen-time together there is an instant chemistry which rides all over the initial, relatively weak, relationship screenplay. These flaws are not overwhelming but do reduce the quality of an otherwise excellent production.

Becoming Jane is a better than average period piece and more accessible than many, combining drama, comedy and romance each in good measure. The film paints an interesting (possible) portrait of one of the best loved authors of the English language – full of romance and tragedy, love and loss – and does so in a clever and visually appealing manner. If you’re lucky, and you haven’t already done the reading, Becoming Jane may even lead you back to the much richer source material to which it owes a debt of gratitude.

A STRENGTH of this fairly plain DVD release is the decent transfer, with Eigil Bryld’s beautifully captured colours and scenery remain as visually rich as ever on the small screen. Lazily, the ‘Making of...’ featurette is primarily made up of bits and pieces spliced from the Cast & Crew Interviews – alongside a few video bytes from production crew members who didn’t make the cut for their own interview segment – with a little extra narration thrown in to cobble it all together. Regardless, it is an interesting and enlightening little piece that most viewers will find an enjoyable, if unchallenging, supplement to their viewing experience.

The Cast & Crew interviews are the kind where they have cut a longer interview down to its ‘best’ pieces so you get a minute on this topic and then 40 seconds on that, with a title slide between each. Though none of the interviews are particularly enthralling, every interviewee comes across as intelligent and well spoken, and each has something interesting to add about the production or their experience working on it. It seems as though many of the younger cast members hold James McAvoy in high esteem – Anne Hathaway even admitting to being intimidated by his level of skill after working with him the first few days – and everyone finds director Julian Jarrold a treat to work with; that rare beast – a director who knows exactly what they want but doesn’t bitch-slap the cast and crew to get it.