Austen Chronicle

'Becoming Jane' sure looks nice, but it could have used a plot

If there's one thing that Brokeback Mountain taught us, it is that Shakespeare's wife, Anne Hathaway, looks great both in and out of costume. But is that enough of a talent to sustain an entire film? That's the question asked by Becoming Jane, a biopic about Jane Austen.

Austen, for those of you who don't like going to Hugh Grant films, was an English novelist who hung around the late-18th/early-19th century empowering women and making fun of the overly mannered, as was the wont of English novelists at that time. She also fell in love with a man who, due to some prior financial entanglements, found it difficult to return her love in the legally sanctioned manner that custom demanded.

Instead of taking the modern route and just doing oral and then marrying some rich chick, this fellow, Tom Lefroy, found himself unbearably conflicted, and Jane felt the conflict in herself--in her bosom, I believe, as that's where conflicts were felt in the 19th century.

Or at least that's how Becoming Jane tells it; the actual historical record is somewhat scant, as Austen's sister burned her letters and erased her hard drive.

With Anne Hathaway as Austen and the talented James McAvoy as Tom Lefroy (for the rhyme, one assumes), Becoming Jane's got mid-level star power, with able backup by James Cromwell and Maggie Smith, but everyone's been directed to behave as though they're in a BBC/Hallmark dual production, so there are lots of widened eyes and fluttering gazes and stiff upper lips.

The acting's not bad, though: For the most part, everyone, except for Hathaway, sinks naturally enough into their roles. As for being a good actress, right now, Hathaway is mostly just very pretty. I mean, she's not bad, but I haven't seen her do anything terribly impressive with her shirt on.

But what really sinks Becoming Jane is that it almost completely lacks a story. Sure, a boy and girl fall in love, and then something stands in the way of their love, and they either overcome this obstacle or they don't. But you need more than that to keep 120 minutes of film from becoming an exercise in comparative wallpaper analysis, and Becoming Jane pretty quickly sinks into a snail's pace. While the wallpaper and the costumes and sets and English countryside (it's actually filmed in Ireland, but Ireland is like England for impoverished poets) and anatomies of the actors are lovely, there's only so much staring at excellent bone structure, highlighted by fields of clover, you can do before the thirst for plot overwhelms you.

There's also the problem of the script, which sounds a little like a Simpsons parody of an English costume drama. For example, when Austen first meets Lefroy, she finds him irritating. When asked about him, she calls him "the most disgraceful, arrogant, insufferable man!" So, yeah, they're pretty much going to be kissing soon.

But before they can kiss, Jane needs to establish that she is a Serious Person who wishes to be, not a writer, but a Writer. She does this by, for example, giving readings. Yes. She reads. Aloud. In a movie. It's an interesting and often overlooked fact that films are not radio, and that simply reading something into the camera is mildly less effective than having "actors" do a "performance" wherein the "story" is "portrayed in a visually interesting manner."

But whatever. It's a movie about a writer. It's going to have a reading. And there are some hot action scenes, even if they're few and far between. For example, Lefroy is into bare-knuckle brawling, so you have a kind of Fight Club 1790 going on, with otherwise dandyish men recovering their masculinity by hitting each other a fine display of pugilistic expertise.

Also, in one sequence--and this, gentle reader, you will find most droll--a letter arrives in the middle of a meal, forcing a gentlemen to excuse himself! I guess letters were the 18th-century equivalent of cell phones, always going off inopportunely. But anyway, if you think that a reading, a fight and the arrival of a letter should be highlights of a film, then Becoming Jane is for you.

I will say, though, that as limp as this particular outing is, it's at least a magnitude better than director Julian Jarrold's last film, Kinky Boots, which also took an incredibly overused plot and strung it along with a series of clichéd interactions. In Kinky Boots, though, every aspect of the film seemed like it had been cribbed from previous awful films.

In Becoming Jane, some of the secondary stories have a decent amount of force. Joe Anderson has a nice turn as Jane's brother, who manages to marry for money. And the highlight of the film is the underrated Laurence Fox, playing Jane's wealthy suitor, Mr. Wisley. He's the 18th-century equivalent of a nerdboy: socially awkward, but once you get past his geeky exterior, far deeper and more interesting than the handsome, and somehow more lovable, Tom Lefroy.

But ultimately, this film belongs to the costumers and set designers, so the experience is pretty much the same as going to a museum and staring at old dresses. If you think you can do that for 120 minutes, then by all means, check out Becoming Jane.

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