Friday, April 06, 2007

Becoming Jane

Jane Austen novels - and the subsequent films and TV series based on those novels - are truly "porn for women". If a woman doesn't long for a tall, dark and handsome man to stare broodily at her but act like a stuck-up bastard before passionately and surprisinly declaring his undying love in the most perfect example of Regency language, well - she's obviously misplaced her second X chromosome.

With so much affection for Austen's witty examinations of late 18th/early 19th century manners and society, it was inevitable that one day a film and/or TV series would shift focus from her characters to her actual life. Becoming Jane is the result, and although it makes Austen's younger years considerably more exciting than they probably were, it reflects the author herself's work in being well-constructed, and endlessly charming.

Becoming Jane is actually based on a book called Becoming Jane Austen, which posed the theory that Jane - who was famously denied the happy-ever-after endings of her heroines, dying a spinster - once had an "understanding" (relationship probably being too strong a word) with an Irish lawyer named Tom LeFroy when both were 20 years old. LeFroy went on to be Governor of Ireland and named his daughter Jane. Enough proof for author ???, and the subsequent filmmakers, to sex up the story and claim Austen did have personal experience of matters of the heart, which she later drew on in her novels.

The first half of the film is simply hilarious. If you like a bit of 1795-era humour like me, you'll also be cracking up laughing as other cinema-goers wonder what the hell you're on. Anne Hathaway is, in true Hollywood style, far prettier than Austen was (remember Greer Garson as Marie Curie? Female chemists have been living with that legacy for years), but she works her American tongue well over the sparkling English dialogue. She's matched by the devlish charms of James "I'm in every second movie now" McAvoy as LeFroy, a roguish pugilist who lives by the good graces of his rich judge uncle (Ian Richardson). Their initial dislike predictably turns into an attraction, then an alliance, before crumbling under the weight of personal responsibility.

Where this movie falls down is in its second half, with the road towards the unhappy ending unfortunately pitted with melodramatic potholes. The cast of British stalwarts - including Richardson and the indomitable Maggie Smith as a Lady Catherine de Burgh-matriarch - seem wasted in one-dimensional roles. Julie Walters is great, but her performance could be swapped with Brenda Blethyn in last year's Pride and Prejudice and nobody would notice. And while it has moments that inspire you to clasp your hands to your chest and sigh, such as LeFroy's inevitable declaration of love for Jane, the characters are not quite as dynamic as the ones Austen herself created. An irony really, but real life is never quite as interesting as fiction.

If anything, this movie's a potent reminder of just how lucky we Western gals are these days. Sure, wearing empire-line muslin gowns and going to country balls looks appealing, but the corseted nature of not just women's bodies but their freedoms and desires certainly doesn't. It's a good movie to see with your girlfriends, or your Mum. I would also recommend it to men if they want to score points with their ladies.

As a final note, I'd just like to point out the ridiculousness of drawing comparisons (as many other reviews have done) between the character of LeFroy and Mr Darcy from Pride and Prejudice. LeFroy is more like a Wickham or a Willoughby (from Sense & Sensibility) than a Darcy, which shows perhaps where Jane's own preferences lay, or at least why her characters end up rejecting lively roustabouts in favour of the broody but honourable types. Now that I've made that point, I'm off to buy my partner a frock coat and a cravat, and convince him to spend several hours staring broodily out a window.

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