NEW YORK — Julian Jarrold is a sucker for punishment.
There’s no other explanation for the English director’s choice of projects.
His first feature film, 2005’s “Kinky Boots,” was about a Northampton shoemaker who attempts to save the family business by starting a line of fetish footwear.
He’s currently filming “Brideshead Revisited,” an adaptation of the much-loved novel by Evelyn Waugh, which has already been made into a much-loved British miniseries.
His second feature, “Becoming Jane,” which opened in U.S. theaters recently, marks the first time the most beloved English author after Shakespeare is portrayed on-screen. For this first, Mr. Jarrold has chosen to tell a mostly fictionalized tale that turns Jane Austen the spinster into the heroine of the kind of love story she is famous for writing.
The 47-year-old director admits he was nervous about how his film would be received.
“Jane Austen fans were the most cautious before the film came out but generally have been the most positive,” he reports.
Mr. Jarrold marvels at the author’s continuing popularity. “I think every generation discovers her anew and finds different things in her,” he says. “Obviously it’s the romance that’s the big draw, but it’s the sort of clearsighted portrayal of that romance with all its flaws and disappointments and unromanticized wit, caustic wit, actually, that makes them constantly live again for people. Certainly so many movies, even modern movies, ‘Bridget Jones’ and all the rest, have used it.”
Mr. Jarrold has certainly rethought the author. While most critics see the film’s love interest, Irish law student Tom Lefroy, as a precursor of the favorite Austen hero, Mr. Darcy, the character actually has much more in common with those Austen cads Wickham and Willoughby.
“That’s one of the things that Jane Austen was fascinated by,” Mr. Jarrold says. “In all the novels, there’s this roguish dark stranger who’s sexy and attractive and not to be relied upon.” The film is, in part, an answer to the question of where this recurring cad comes from.
But it’s not just rumors about Mr. Jarrold’s interpretation of the author that had many critics getting the knives out before the film had even opened. The director chose an American actress, Anne Hathaway, to portray this most British of authors. The young star of “The Devil Wears Prada” may not be British, but she was a perfect fit for the role, he believes.
“We needed someone 21 or 22. There’s not many people with the maturity and the charisma and who’ve got that energy that Annie brings to it,” the director says. “There’s not many other Americans who could have done it, either.”
He adds, “When I met her, she put my knowledge of Austen to shame.”
“The terror was incalculable. The pressure was intense throughout the filming,” she admitted at a press roundtable last month. “But I really held fast to what had drawn me into the project in this first place, which was what an amazing chance to take this woman who was only ever seen as an icon and try to make her real.”