Being new to the film-reviewing gig, I’ve recently figured out that there are two ways of looking at how a critic is matched to a film, both of which have advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, critics indifferent or even hostile to certain film genres are unlikely to “get” what it is that makes that genre so appealing to others. Conversely, the passion critics may have for other genres leaves them vulnerable to blindspots. The best a reviewer can do is to be aware of this double-bind — and the best a publication like Pajiba can do is to continually offer a mix of both types of scenarios, in fairness to readers and films alike, and as a concession to the vagaries of that most indelible of human interferences, subjectivity.
In the case of Becoming Jane, it was a matter of critic + beloved genre = possible blindspots. I admit to a humdinger-love for European period productions of all kinds. I’ve seen and enjoyed hundreds of them, and can crow my advice about the best adaptations of Hardy novels (The Mayor of Casterbridge with Ciaran Hinds — hands down) versus the absolute worst (The Return of the Native with an otherwise well-cast young Catherine Zeta-Jones as Eustacia Vye). I could slather you with spittle while ferociously arguing why the 1998 BBC adaptation of Vanity Fair is a thousand times more successful than the regrettable Witherspoonian excuse for same. In short, I feed off this stuff when I want me some quality fluff.
All that said, my blindspots for the genre turned out to be non-issues here, because Julian Jarrold’s Becoming Jane left me rank cold. Granted, I didn’t enter the film with sky-high expectations, due partly to my generalized Austen fatigue and partly to my more specific dissatisfaction with the way her work has been mishandled onscreen. Here comes the scholarship, folks (skip down two paragraphs if you don’t give two flyings about the academic crap, but only came to learn if Becoming Jane is suitable for a Sunday out with Grandma): Austen movies (especially those starring Hollywood faces for U.S. marketability) make her novels out to be romances, first and foremost, when in fact the romance is merely a device (expected of a female author by readers and publishers in Austen’s lifetime) on which to hinge her deft commentary about social biases and hierarchies — hierarchies invisible to the majority of current-day North Americans, who don’t realize how stratified the English upper classes were in Austen’s era. The witty banter and the sitcom courtship plots are only the icing Austen concocted to frost her larger, more nuanced concerns. It’s those concerns that make Austen Austen, and not just Emma’s wee matchmaking oopsies or Elizabeth’s charming mulishness. But social commentary isn’t terribly cinematic on its own — not next to witty banter and sitcom courtships — and so we’re glutted with Austen movies that are all icing and no cake.
Becoming Jane fumbles all the same balls, despite being a fictionalized backstory of Austen’s emergence as an author and not an adaptation of one of her actual novels. That distinction doesn’t much matter here, given how desperately Jarrold tries to model the film after an Austen book in theme and tone. He fails. Once again, love and banter are amplified, while the simmering socio-political undertones are illuminated by a tepid-at-best spotlight. There are, to be fair, moments in which the film attempts to honor the spirit of Austen and late 18th-century life: the rising preeminence of private property; the reality of gentry types’ financial reliance on family, favor, sinecure or marriage; the restraints placed on female authors of a certain social class (as girls, they rarely had their families’ permission to study a “masculine” curriculum, and as women were discouraged from experiencing the kind of public life that animates the works of DeFoe, Fielding, Smollett or Scott). I perked up briefly when my girl Ann Radcliffe, Gothic novelist extraordinaire, was trotted out to suggest that an author can in fact “write about what she doesn’t live” — a glimmering argument snuffed out by the film’s premise that young Austen could not have become Jane without a man’s influence or the experience of heartbreak. As usual, onscreen Austen boils down to love.
But even from a purely cinematic point of view — from the standpoint of a self-professed men-in-tight-breeches movie junkie — the film underwhelms. Becoming Jane picks up one negligible pearl of Austen biography — her year-long flirtation with an Irish barrister named Tom Lefroy — and embeds it in a mosaic of mostly fabricated marriage proposals and love triangles with clumsy fingers. When underwhelming Jane (Anne Hathaway) meets underwhelming Tom (James McAvoy), the typical contre-danse of rom-com opposites is set in motion: He hates the countryside she adores, he brawls in the face of her girdled propriety, and — oh my! — he insults her writing. But clichés and marketing campaign aside, Becoming Jane is more drab drama than frothy delight. In a stagnant nutshell, Jane is simultaneously wooed by the bland nephew of a wealthy noblewoman (Maggie Smith, as Costume Drama Maggie Smith) and McAvoy’s “poor” lawyer (Austen’s representation of 18th-century poverty wasn’t exactly comprehensive). We’re meant to believe that the force of this binary collapses all of poor Jane’s future conjugal prospects — that once again, it comes down to love. As expected, duty figures as the primary pooper of this particular party. No obstacles develop that the viewer can’t foresee, and the end product is so anemic that I can barely be bothered to try to liven it up for you with description or rhetoric.
The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography calls Austen’s real-life attachment to Lefroy “unserious,” but I have no problem with Jarrold’s liberties-taking or filling-in of historical blanks. Filmmakers and novelists must be allowed that prerogative in order to crowbar open new imaginative spaces. Rather, it’s all in the execution, and this one is empty and pointless and barely entertaining. If you see enough films of a certain genre, you can start to pick out which of its lesser examples tread perilously close to unintentional self-parody. Alas, Becoming Jane’s characterizations, dialogue and performances are just formulaic enough to skirt that territory, and when they’re not cozying up to formula, they’re malingering lifelessly on the screen. And while I’ve never harbored an opinion about Hathaway’s chops one way or another, I doubt anyone would have missed her had an actor with more presence (and a more convincing Englishness) been cast in her place. In fact, Becoming Jane, for all its self-importance, is the film no one would mourn had it never been made. – Ranylt Richildis
(Originally published on Pajiba.com on August 6, 2007.)