Jane Austen could spot a phony. Her novels (including Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility) frequently expose impostors and the trouble they cause. As a result, Austen would not have been a fan of Becoming Jane. To read Austen’s work is to experience the grandeur of pure fantasy, with your feet firmly planted in the reality of the human heart. To watch Becoming Jane is to experience the lure of romance while clenching your fists at the lack of a quality payoff. It’s like going on a date with a charming flirt only to be deprived of a goodnight kiss.
A sort of Shakespeare in Love without the wit or the daring, Becoming Jane takes historical liberties to portray the early days in the life of Austen. The filmmakers develop a known flirtation into a desperate love affair with distinctly Austen-esque machinations.
In this world, young Jane is nearly indistinguishable from Elizabeth Bennet, the heroine of Pride and Prejudice. Jane (Anne Hathaway of The Devil Wears Prada) lives with her parents and siblings in a romantic house on the rolling English countryside. Always writing, she’s unaffected by the attentions of men until she meets the brash young lawyer Tom (James McAvoy, The Last King of Scotland). Complications and chaos ensue.
Embracing every Austen trope, the story includes a couple’s hatred for each other that turns into affection, a wealthy old woman who tries to control her heir’s marriage, class struggle, and the ongoing pressure to marry well. But watching Becoming Jane is the ultimate tease. All the elements are in place—the beautiful windswept countryside, the handsome rebel, the headstrong lady—but they don’t fit. It’s Austen without the Austen. The love story isn’t believable, the complications are forced, and worst of all, I barely cared about who Jane ended up with. I even started to sympathize with Mr. Wisley (Laurence Fox), the awkward suitor with a large bank account representing all that Jane despises: marrying for money, not love. I found myself wishing that Jane would choose him just so the movie would end.
At a solid 120 minutes, the twists and turns begin to wear after the first hour. Taking liberties with someone’s life is risky business. In fictionalizing the story of Austen, the filmmakers didn’t go far enough. Becoming Jane attempts to please the purists and the dreamers, but ends up disappointing both.