Given that Anne Hathaway is most famous for her role in The Devil Wears Prada and that director Julian Jarrold is best known for Kinky Boots, I didn't have particularly high expectations of this homage to Jane Austen as I trepidly stepped into the cinema. In the last decade or so, there has been a huge boom in productions of Austen's novels geared towards the mass market (e.g. 2007's Mansfield Park starring Billie Piper and 2005's Pride and Prejudice, starring Keira Knightley). Adaptations of Austen's novels have become increasingly lightweight and simplified since their heyday in 1995, when the hugely popular BBC productions of Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice both first aired. The winsome and fluffy Becoming Jane further builds on this trend, purporting to show us what inspired Austen to write her classic novels.
Our protagonists - the dowryless Jane and the dashing Tom Lefroy - meet in the sitting room at a family gathering when Jane is reading a sample of her writing. Already at this early stage, when the director has the opportunity of showing what a truly original and amazing writer Austen was, the first problem emerges as he throws the scene entirely to Lefroy's evident boredom and provocative somnolence. Jane is seen fretting upstairs, throwing her story into the fire in distress, clearly unsettled by Tom not being impressed by her. It cannot have been the intention of the filmmakers to trivialise Austen's art in this clumsy scene and it doesn't make for a good start.
Austen's flirtation with Lefroy when she was 20 (she wrote to her sister Cassandra amusingly, "Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together") is amplified here to a towering, star-crossed love. The sexual frisson is spelt out: Tom, who greatly admired Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, tantalisingly quotes to Jane on female ecstasy and she is hooked. Independent she might be - she is seen rejecting the dry Mr Whisly's proposal against her mother's wishes and peskily waking up her parents with early-morning piano-playing - but when confronted with an arrogant amateur boxer she seems to rather friskily melt at a touch! It certainly requires a great deal of suspended disbelief to play along with this very sentimental portrait of Austen (Jane was much loved by her family for example; it is highly unlikely that she would have even considered an elopement). It doesn't help, I think, that Hathaway is good deal prettier than Austen is thought to have been ("She was not generally considered handsome," writes one of her biographers, Claire Tomalin). In fact, Hathaway strikingly resembles Disney's Snow White here. She is, for me, ultimately miscast, failing to convey the true depth of feeling and powers of observation that would make for a just homage to this much-celebrated writer.
On the plus side, James McAvoy plays Tom with great suaveness and confidence (his performance in Atonement is also worthy of praise) and Anna Maxwell Martin gives a warm, humane performance as Cassandra: both bolster the film. James Cromwell and Julie Walters play Austen's parents well, although their characters are rather too obviously based on the Bennet parents in Pride and Prejudice. Indeed screenwriters Kevin Hood and Sarah Williams have plundered much from Austen's novels to flesh out the characters. They have studied past Austen productions closely, too, but this attention does backfire somewhat, making the film seem tired and a little lifeless. It is difficult to shake off the feeling that we've seen this all before.
Tom is clearly intended as a Darcy prototype and Jane's spirited declarations are strongly reminiscent of Elizabeth Bennet. The effect of this is, sadly, that Austen becomes subordinated to her most-loved creations. Her writing is seen as springing from her experiences of love - one of the oldest patriarchal clichés - and from her environment, rather than from her own thoughts and imagination. In the light of this and other rather wishy-washy productions, it would seem that there is still some sort of cultural need to see women as emotionally needy, innocent little creatures, who fall irresistibly in love with rogue-like men. If these women do create, it is seen as incidental rather than actual talent. Doesn't Jane Austen, who could spot phoniness at the drop of a hat, deserve something better than this?