- The Washington Times - Friday, August 3, 2007

Jane Austen is one of history’s most famous spinsters.

She wrote six novels full of penetrating insights about human nature — yet the parson’s daughter who lived to just 41 never married nor even moved from the family home.

How could such a seemingly inexperienced girl have written such deep works of art?

“Becoming Jane” takes a superficial — but immensely fun — crack at the question.

The film aims to obliterate the conventional view of one of the original “reclusive authors,” imagining that Jane Austen was once the heroine in the kind of complicated love story that she was so good at writing. Though doomed, screenwriters muse, this relationship inspired all her subsequent works.

Young Jane (Anne Hathaway) is 20 years old and already a budding authoress. She’s not published but reads her stories and stages her plays for her appreciative family.

Less impressed is Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy). The Irish lad is a law student in London but condemned to a visit to the country after word of his late-night carousing gets to his uncle and benefactor (the late Ian Richardson, in his final film role).

Lefroy and his “metropolitan mind,” as he terms it, are bored by what he sees as mere “female accomplishment.”

“Was I deficient in rapture?” he asks her after a reading.

“In consciousness,” she acidly replies.

The two judge each other on as little evidence as do Darcy and Elizabeth in “Pride and Prejudice.” As in that novel, of course, ripostes soon turn to romance. But as in every Jane Austen novel, there are obstacles to the longed-for marriage. Make that one obstacle: money — as in the heroine has none.

“Becoming Jane” is a fun and frothy costume drama that Austen fans should enjoy — as long as they’re not expecting anything close to biographical accuracy. Few biographers believe that Austen and Lefroy had anything but a mild flirtation, but two brief comments in Austen’s letters are here turned into a romance that was more important to Austen than her art.

Bits and pieces from Austen’s six novels are sprinkled throughout the story, and Janeites will have fun spotting them.

But, while most critics see Lefroy as a real-life Darcy, he shares much more in common with those handsome cads Wickham and Willoughby.

That’s not the only subversive element in “Becoming Jane.” The film may be rated PG, but the act that Mr. Austen appears about to perform on Mrs. Austen early one morning is anything but.

Adrian Johnston’s lush, piano-heavy score, on the other hand, is the model of propriety, sounding quite like something out of the 18th century.

Miss Hathaway chose a challenging follow-up to her acclaimed performance in last year’s “The Devil Wears Prada,” but the American-born actress does an admirable job of communicating seriousness and playfulness at once, and her accent is more than adequate. She is most certainly going places. Mr. McAvoy and his blue eyes are very charming, and there’s real chemistry between the pair. With a pedigreed supporting cast — including James Cromwell and Julie Walters as Jane’s parents, Anna Maxwell Martin as her sister and Maggie Smith as the model for Lady Catherine de Bourgh — you could hardly go wrong.

Still, “Becoming Jane” is a little unsatisfying to this Austen fan. Director Julian Jarrold has made a witty, beautiful film. His technical achievement is no small matter, with nice, long tracking shots and clever focus tricks.

But his story’s soul is missing something — Austen’s genius. In “Becoming Jane,” the author of some of the greatest novels in the English language says she’s ready to throw her talent away if only she can be with the man she loves.

But as any reader of a Jane Austen novel will tell you, a clever girl doesn’t have to give up her spirit for love.

***

TITLE: “Becoming Jane

RATING: PG (brief nudity and mild language)

CREDITS: Directed by Julian Jarrold. Written by Kevin Hood and Sarah Williams.

RUNNING TIME: 120 minutes

WEB SITE: becomingjane-themovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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