If you enjoy Jane Austen novels or movies based on them, you might like “Becoming Jane,” the somewhat fictionalized version of Austen’s life that was released in theaters a few weeks ago. Unfortunately, there’s nothing in it that we haven’t seen before or anything that feels like it might have actually inspired Austen’s books.
The movie stars Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen and shows us a romance that we’re supposed to believe inspired novels such as “Pride and Prejudice.” Unfortunately, the 2005 film adaptation was so recent, not to mention so excellent, that “Jane” most of the time simply feels like a remake of that film with a few major changes. Admittedly, it is to the movie’s credit that the cast is also high in quality, as are the cinematography, costumes and production design. But you still can’t shake the feeling that you’re watching the cinematic equivalent to a Broadway revival. The only difference is that the names have been changed to those of real people, starting with Hathaway in the Elizabeth Bennet role.
So we Hathaway instead of Keira Knightly, James Cromwell instead of Donald Sutherland, Julie Walters instead of Brenda Blethyn and Maggie Smith instead of Judi Dench. Still, one could do a lot worse than these very capable actors.
The only actor who seems be playing against the type of character we expect is James McAvoy (“The Last King of Scotland”), who plays Jane’s love interest. This time, he is named Tom Lefroy instead of Mr. Darcy. To be fair, Lefroy was a real person, though it is unclear whether or not they had a romantic relationship. McAvoy a likable actor and does a fine job. Of course, as expected, he and Jane get off to a bumpy start after they meet. What’s different is that he actually makes an effort to win her over instead of compounding the insulting comment he makes about her that she overhears in the beginning. Jane, however, in typical Elizabeth Bennett fashion, is the stubborn one who scoffs at him until the inevitable moment when she falls in love. As is also the case in “Prejudice,” Jane must also face the snobbery from the upper crust wealthy people who consider her family beneath them. On top of that, most people find it ridiculous that she wants to be a writer. This sort of acts as a necessary subplot thrown in to remind us we’re supposed to be watching Jane Austen, not a character she invented.
This is not to say that “Jane” is a bad or boring story. It’s just the characters seem too influenced by a mountain of clichés to accept the movie on its own terms. And why should we, since the movie’s whole purpose is to show these events as the origins of one of the world’s most widely read books? One can at least appreciate the irony of a movie script mimicking a novel to create a story that is supposed to have inspired the novel.
If you’re looking for a fresh love story, you have plenty of options. If you’re limiting your options to stories that take place in the 18th or 19th century, you still have quite a few choices. But if you must see a costume comedy/drama at a nearby multiplex, “Becoming Jane,” I suppose, would be your only option. You could still do far worse than this likable, if average, entertainment.
“Becoming Jane” is rated PG: Parental guidance suggested.