Hollywood can't seem to get enough of dead female English writers. Hot
on the heels of Miss Potter, and in advance of films about the Brontes,
we have this romantic confection about Jane Austen's youthful fling
with Irish barrister Tom Lefroy.
There have already been howls of criticism from outraged Janeites that the film is historically inaccurate. It's true that English teachers will have a fit at some elements of the story: at best speculative and unsubstantiated, at worst downright erroneous. The filmmakers admittedly didn't have a lot of historical material to work from. The true background to the story is contained in a couple of letters written by Jane Austen to her sister Cassandra, and an admission by Tom Lefroy in old age that he had once been in 'boyish love' with the writer. On this slightly shaky platform, the filmmakers have built a story of repressed passion and defiance of social mores that is a work of fiction worthy of a novel in its own right.
This doesn't really matter. Nobody in their right mind would ever accept the version of events presented by a Hollywood biopic as historical gospel. The only viewers who will be taken in by the story seen here will be those who are too lazy, too uninterested or too credulous to do the modicum of research needed to find out the real facts, and who cares what such people think? This film may be largely untrue, but what really matters is whether it works on its own terms, qua film.
Unfortunately, it doesn't, or at least not entirely. The main reason for this is the underlying premise. It is implied that without Jane and Tom's youthful affair Jane Austen would never have written her six great novels, and in particular (perhaps because it's the most familiar to audiences) Pride and Prejudice. We see Jane angrily destroying a juvenile story criticized by Tom, and later, in the throes of love, bashing out the first draft of P & P (in a single night, which shows an impressive turn of speed). It's plain that, as Tom tells her, 'experience is vital'.
The same clunkingly literal idea that an artist must experience emotions in order to write about them successfully - underscored Shakespeare in Love, but there it was handled with a rather lighter touch. Here we are asked to believe that Pride and Prejudice was not a distillation of all Jane Austen's youthful experiences enlivened by a vivid imagination, a sharp sense of humour and a dollop of literary genius, but the next best thing to a true story. The reasons for this approach are obvious: cinema can dramatize Johnny Cash learning the guitar, or Picasso experimenting with paint, but the spectacle of a writer sitting at a desk dreaming and scribbling palls pretty rapidly.
The irony of a film that takes such wild liberties with the facts relying upon this trite old idea would certainly have been apparent to Jane Austen, whose mastery of irony is emphasized rather unsubtly throughout. Moreover, it's intellectually dishonest; lacking the ability to create a Mr Darcy, the filmmakers borrow freely from Jane Austen's characterisation in creating Tom, and thereby cheekily suggest that the author was the one who lacked the imagination to make such a person up.
These reservations aside, does the film have anything going for it? Yes. The script has some witty moments and at least makes a decent stab at realistic 18th century dialogue. Ireland is a surprisingly effective and gorgeous substitute for Hampshire, and the autumnal palette of washed-out greens and greys is appropriately sombre. Anne Hathaway is an attractively skittish and impetuous Jane, and she has excellent chemistry with James McAvoy, whose performance as Tom, by turns mercurial and obsessive, is well up to his usual high standards. Reliable support comes from James Cromwell, Julie Walters, the late great Ian Richardson and Maggie Smith, who essentially reprises her character from Gosford Park. The problem is that the lovers' behaviour never really convinces us that this relationship was the foundation of Jane Austen's later literary success, and ultimately peters out into a series of implausible endings, the number of which gives Hot Fuzz and The Return of the King a run for their money. Becoming Jane isn't an awful film, but it doesn't make the grade as a Regency Brief Encounter.
Action / Biography / Drama / Romance
Action / Biography / Drama / Romance
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March 06, 2016 at 03:16 PM