Friday, August 10, 2007

Movie Review: Becoming Jane

It seems almost unnecessary to say that I love Jane Austen's novels. She's a beloved icon for bookish women everywhere, who created characters ahead of their time. What woman doesn't want to think of herself as an Elizabeth Bennett, full of intellectual vigor and witty repartee? A woman loved for her mind and personality more than her beauty. Who doesn't cry when cool, reserved Elinor Dashwood finally breaks down and admits her love for Edward? And secretly, come on, don't we all want to be Marianne Dashwood, all fire and passion and romance? We know we would have fallen pray to Willoughby too, at least for a moment. But hopefully our good Elinor sense and Elizabeth sense of humor would save us from going too far down THAT path.

I'm not a purist, though. I'm happy to take my Jane set in high school, or even filtered through the brain of one exceptionally funny, neurotic British woman.

That being said, I wasn't sure what to expect from the movie Becoming Jane. I've never been that curious about Austen's life, assuming that she put all of her what was best in her inside her unforgettable heroines. But...the question IS there. What was Jane Austen really like? She was a brilliant, sardonic observer of the mores and morals of her society. She was an extraordinarily gifted writer. But...who was she, really?

This is the question the movie brings to life. It's absolutely a fictionalization, a “what if?” exercise of the finest order. So bring your imaginations and leave your encyclopedic knowledge of her life (if you possess it) at the door.

Anne Hathaway surprised me in this role. Not only did she produce a credible British accent, but she inhabited the role with a sort of edgy intelligence—exactly the way we all imagine Jane Austen would have behaved, especially at an idealistic twenty.

Like Austen's books, the movie takes us through the tense desperation straining underneath the genteel manners of polite society—the desperation of women who must either marry well or live in poverty, even as men were also cautioned against marrying women who didn't have their own wealth. Jane, like her heroines, is not rich, but unlike them, has already chosen to be a writer. She shares her latest words with an approving audience, but...oh, all is not well in Austen-land.

Enter Mr. Darcy, er, Thomas Lefroy (James McAvoy), a friend of her brother's who doesn't quite entirely share in the general esteem for Jane. So, of course, inevitably they must fall in love (having many witty and literate Austen-ian exchanges along the way), Pride and Prejudice style.

I love period movies and this one did not disappoint. The clothes, the bucolic British setting, the elaborate balls—it was all cinematic chocolate for this tired Mama. The dialogue was appropriately literate and cutting (good work done by the screenwriters, Sarah Williams and Kevin Hall); the actors, especially Maggie Smith as Lady Gresham, as well as James Cromwell and Julie Walters as Jane's parents, seem to have been born to wear velvet and britches. McAvoy and Hathaway have excellent romantic chemistry, and you believe (or want to) that he will defy his father's all very romantic. And, in our hearts of hearts, we WANT Austen to have had that blinding romance, to have lived by our modern ideals of marriage for love only. After all, no one is a better spokeswoman for that point of view than our Elizabeth Bennett herself.

The writers concocted the story from brief mentions in a few of the real Austen's letters; they didn't rewrite her life story, and thus, you know how this one will end.

But I can't consider that a tragedy. After all, regardless of what happened in her life, Jane Austen lived up to her ambitions. She created works of enduring power and beauty despite living in a society that didn't support independent female artists. She claimed her identity as a writer.

I'd say that was a wonderfully happy ending.

For more reviews of Becoming Jane, please visit Mother-Talk.



Blogger Becca said...

Excellent review, and I'm glad to hear you enjoyed the movie. I'm looking forward to seeing it, and might break down and go to the theater instead of waiting for the DVD, just because I'm so impatient :)

A couple of years ago, I visited Jane's residence in Bath, which of course has been turned into a kitschy little museum complete with tea room and gift shoppe. Still, it was interesting to see the rooms where she wrote and received visitors during that time of her life.

8:58 AM, August 11, 2007  
Blogger Tammy said...

I'm looking forward to this one. Thanks for the heads up. ;)

9:54 AM, August 13, 2007  
Blogger Tori said...

And with this review, I will not hesitate to treat myself and go see it!

8:35 PM, August 14, 2007  
Anonymous fern said...

I'm glad you liked the movie! It sounds interesting, I'll have to see it!

9:57 PM, August 18, 2007  
Blogger bubandpie said...

I want to see this one! It's an interesting dilemma - because by the definition of "happy ending" promoted by Austen's own novels, her story cannot have one. But would we ever think of a man's life as tragic because he died single after producing six of the best novels ever written? Even so, her life at its end was pretty bleak.

8:29 PM, August 22, 2007  

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