This review was written for the theatrical release of "Becoming Jane."
LONDON -- It's a beguiling fancy to portray Jane Austen as the heroine of one her own stories, but Julian Jarrold's "Becoming Jane" does just that. The result is a charming romantic drama that draws on the author's observant prose and elegant wit and boasts winning performances by Anne Hathaway as Austen and James McAvoy as the love of her life.
The film will please its natural audience of fans of English costume dramas and should also draw moviegoers seeking respite from violent epics and rowdy comedies. With its handsome look and polished contributions from reliable performers including Julie Walters, Maggie Smith and James Cromwell, "Jane" will take its place alongside the best screen versions of Austen classics. Buena Vista International is releasing it today in the U.K., with Miramax Films aiming for an Aug. 3 release.
Jane Austen may not have been as ravishing a creature as Hathaway ("The Devil Wears Prada"), but the accomplished American actress conveys the writer's vulnerability and self-doubt as well as the unconquerable spirit that compelled her literary destiny. McAvoy, who was so good as a scurrilous opportunist in "The Last King of Scotland," makes a remarkably credible romantic hero.
The screenplay, by Sarah Williams and Kevin Hood, draws from a 2003 biography of Austen by Jon Spence that suggests her real-life acquaintance with Irish lawyer Tom Lefroy had depths not previously recognized.
In the film, the young Jane encounters Tom (McAvoy) when he is banished to the countryside for his raucous ways by his uncle, Judge Langlois, played with ferocious probity by the late Ian Richardson. The young woman's life is much like that of Elizabeth Bennet in "Pride and Prejudice," with a frenetic mother (Walters) anxious about her daughters finding good marriages and a benign father (Cromwell) keen for them to be happy.
Many of the shrewd observations that were to appear in her novels and some of the colorful characters she would create are foreshadowed in this tale of the love affair that would shape her life.
The realities are made plain of the 18th century gulf between rich and poor and the dependence of women upon the achievements of men. Jane's sister Cassandra (Anna Maxwell Martin) pines for a fiance seeking his fortune in a faraway colony, while brother Henry (Joe Anderson) contemplates marriage to Eliza De Feuillide (Lucy Cohu), widow of a rich Frenchman.
Jane, meanwhile, is under considerable pressure to give in to the desire of rich and imposing Lady Greshem (Smith) to marry her dour nephew Mr. Wisley (Laurence Fox).
When Tom joins Henry at the Hampshire country balls and cricket games, the sparks fly between the carefree young law student and the would-be writer in much the same way as when Darcy encounters Elizabeth. The attraction stumbles amid misapprehensions and overheard insults, and Jane is not encouraged when Tom gives her Henry Fielding's "Tom Jones" to read and encourages her to write like a man.
Love flourishes, however, until the immovable prejudices of Tom's uncle, who is the source of his income, and the jealousy of another threaten their happiness.
There is genuine chemistry between Hathaway and McAvoy, and their romance plays out amid gorgeous Irish scenery captured beautifully by cinematographer Eigil Bryld. Everything else -- including Eve Stewart's production design, Eimer Ni Mhaoldomnaigh's costumes and Adrian Johnston's score -- matches the high level of Jarrold's assured direction.
Buena Vista International (U.K.)
Miramax Films (U.S.)
An Ecosse Films Production in association with Blueprint Pictures presented by Buena Vista International (U.K.) and Miramax Films
Director: Julian Jarrold
Screenwriters: Sarah Williams, Kevin Hood
Producers: Graham Broadbent, Robert Bernstein, Douglas Rae
Cinematographer: Eigil Bryld
Production designer: Eve Stewart
Editor: Emma E. Hickox
Costume designer: Eimer Ni Mhaoldomnaigh
Composer: Adrian Johnston
Jane Austen: Anne Hathaway
Tom Lefroy: James McAvoy
Mrs. Austen: Julie Walters
Rev. Austen: James Cromwell
Lady Gresham: Maggie Smith
Henry Austen: Joe Anderson
Eliza De Feuillide: Lucy Cohu
Mr. Wisley: Laurence Fox
Judge Langlois: Ian Richardson
Cassandra Austen: Anna Maxwell Martin
John Warren: Leo Bill
Lucy Lefroy: Jessica Ashworth
Mrs. Lefroy: Eleanor Methven
Mr. Lefroy: Michael James Ford
Robert Fowle: Tom Vaughan-Lawlor
Jenny: Elaine Murphy
Coachman: Guy Carleton
2nd Coachman: Russell Smith
George Austen: Philip Culhane
Mrs. Radcliffe: Helen McCrory
Running time -- 120 minutes
MPAA rating PG