Oh, wipe that starchy Masterpiece Theatre moue off your face — pop Jane Austen is fun, especially when it’s almost completely made up. According to Becoming Jane, a new addition to the plentiful Austen spinoff canon, off duty our lady of graceful letters was hot stuff at cricket and kissing and had a thing for wicked Wickham, not dull Darcy. Well, sort of. There actually is a sliver of evidence that at age 20 — when Miss Austen had completed an early version of Sense and Sensibility and was staring with admirably insufficient fright down the abyss of old maidenhood — she conceived warm feelings for Tom Lefroy, a young Irish lawyer reluctantly visiting her neck of the Hampshire woods. Though at least two reputable historians have stepped up and called their brief encounter a full-blown amour fou, next to nothing is known about what actually passed between Austen and Lefroy, beyond a few admiring sentences in a letter she wrote to her beloved sister Cassandra.
Nothing came of it, and the bounder moved right along to marry money and father seven children. For all we know, Austen may have been a big flirt herself, or (far more likely) one of those painfully sensitive types for whom a single hurtful experience was enough to put her off men for life. Either way, her loss is our gain, for had she married Lefroy there might have been no Pride and Prejudice — ergo no Bridget Jones, God forbid, and Colin Firth’s bare torso would remain tragically unavailable to salivating female television audiences the world over.
None of which has stopped director Julian Jarrold (Kinky Boots) from working up a slickly pleasurable head of romantic steam about the encounter. For realism’s sake, Jarrold checks in with the usual muddy hems, misty green fields and chickens clucking underfoot. And if you’re an Austen reader you can have an okay time just playing I-Spy Pride and Prejudice, whose spirited young Austen stand-in gets her man by dint of cheeky backtalk and high moral purpose, against all obstacles posed by family and friends. There goes flighty Mrs. Austen/Bennett (Julie Walters) with wry Mr. B. (James Cromwell) tagging along; the wealthy old witch (Maggie Smith, hamming adorably) with a somewhat Darcy-ish nephew (Laurence Fox) in tow, bent on screwing up Jane’s love life; the dweeby vicar (Leo Bill) chasing Jane; and so on. But the job at hand is to give Austen the lively romantic life she probably never had, and why not, since that’s what she did herself in her novels? No doubt there was much gnashing of homegrown teeth at the casting of Anne Hathaway as Jane, and I can certainly think of others better suited to Austen’s ironically reserved temperament — tart and funny Emily Blunt, for one, or a more mature Lucy Cohu, who has a small role in the movie as a worldlier, wealthier cousin.
The posters for Becoming Jane show Hathaway in a tunic with an unfortunate resemblance to Julie Andrews’ lonely-goatherd getup in The Sound of Music, and there’s certainly more giggly virgin than acerbic sophisticate in Hathaway’s interpretation. But that may be about right for this sheltered young woman who interacted mostly with sisters, and notwithstanding a tendency to deliver her lines as if declaiming Shakespeare, Hathaway makes a frisky sparring partner for the excellent James McAvoy. As Lefroy, McAvoy and his bedroom eyes introduce some sorely needed ambiguity in a sea of P & P impersonators. But following a delicious, if highly improbable, flirtatious exchange in which Lefroy lets Jane know, by way of reading aloud from Tom Jones, that all she really needs is nookie, Becoming Jane turns serious. What I mean is, it turns into a Harlequin romance, with hurdle after hurdle leading to an elopement, a cruel uncle (the late, great Ian Richardson) who puts a wrench in the romantic works, and an eleventh-hour turnaround that, in the finest Austen tradition, puts good behavior before happily ever after.
Without a doubt, Becoming Jane strips Austen of the wit and dainty language that keep her novels on school curricula to this day. But two centuries after her death, Austen’s most potent theme — unavailable men, and the women who love them — continues to speak to women around the world, whether they’ve read her directly or through the romance novels (and, yes, self-help manuals) she inspired. This may be why, to the evident disgust of the manly critic sitting next to me, I wept like a baby when love lay bleeding on the ground.
BECOMING JANE | Directed by JULIAN JARROLD | Written by SARAH WILLIAMS and KEVIN HOOD | Produced by GRAHAM BROADBENT, ROBERT BERNSTEIN and DOUGLAS RAE | Released by Miramax Films | Selected theaters