Jane Austen is the heroine in a story resembling one of her own novels in “Becoming Jane,” a cinematic confection that puts forth that a meaningful romance is what inspired a 20-year-old Austen to write so astutely about loveand propriety. Treated more sharply, this premise might have amounted to a fresh take on the overexposed Austen. But lacking the 18th-century literary icon’s wit and depth, the movie’s merely watchable retread.
Like “Shakespeare in Love” or “Agatha,” the film mixes fact, speculation, and silliness to present a generally fictitious bit of intrigue in the life of a famed author. In 1795 England, Jane Austen (Anne Hathaway) is a budding writer who exasperates her gentry-class parents (Julie Walters, James Cromwell) by refusing to marry for money over love. After rejecting Mr. Wisley (Laurence Fox) — nephew of wealthy snob Lady Gresham (Maggie Smith) — Jane falls for dynamic, penniless law student and rogue Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy), whose arrogance initially incenses her. The two hope to elope, but the head overpowers the heart as family and social mores prevail. Instead, Jane injects the romance into her writing.
Once you get past the stupidity of its notion that it took the influence and love of a man to turn Jane Austen into a literary genius, the film’s basically agreeable. Austen fans should enjoy comparing the people in Jane’s life with the characters in Jane’s novels.
But save for a cricket match in which Jane takes a mighty whack, there’s nothing memorable in this film, which amounts to a lukewarm variation on Austen’s books. Director Julian Jarrold (“Kinky Boots”) opts for the fizzy and the feel-good at the expense of tones that would more powerfully reflect predicaments. Kevin Hood and Sarah Williams’ research-inspired screenplay lacks the keenness that distinguished the above-mentioned bardic fantasy. Hathaway’s Jane and McAvoy’s Tom generate sparks but don’t quite sizzle. The impressive-on-paper cast, in fact, delivers no knockouts in an atmosphere where surface energy eclipses deeper heat.
For superior examples of the Austen mini-genre, rent virtually any “Pride and Prejudice,” Ang Lee’s “Sense and Sensibility,” or Roger Michell’s “Persuasion.”
Becoming Jane **½
Starring Anne Hathaway, James McAvoy, Julie Walters, Maggie Smith
Written by Sarah Williams and Kevin Hood
Directed by Julian Jarrold
Running time: 2 hours