In 1929 French Indochina, a French teenage girl embarks on a reckless and forbidden romance with a wealthy, older Chinese man, each knowing that knowledge of their affair will bring drastic consequences to each other.
Tony Leung Ka Fai,
The year is 1795 and young Jane Austen is a feisty 20-year-old and emerging writer who already sees a world beyond class and commerce, beyond pride and prejudice, and dreams of doing what was then nearly unthinkable - marrying for love. Naturally, her parents are searching for a wealthy, well-appointed husband to assure their daughter's future social standing. They are eyeing Mr. Wisley, nephew to the very formidable, not to mention very rich, local aristocrat Lady Gresham, as a prospective match. But when Jane meets the roguish and decidedly non-aristocratic Tom Lefroy, sparks soon fly along with the sharp repartee. His intellect and arrogance raise her ire - then knock her head over heels. Now, the couple, whose flirtation flies in the face of the sense and sensibility of the age, is faced with a terrible dilemma. If they attempt to marry, they will risk everything that matters - family, friends and fortune. Written by
Sit in the shade on a fine day, and look upon an American-Irish-English Jane . . .
A film about Jane Austen, one of the greatest writers of English literature, will garner expectations and hopes, especially with a cascade of stars newly discovered (James McAvoy, Anne Hathaway) and well-established (Julie Walters, Maggie Smith, James Cromwell). That it focuses on her life before she becomes a writer certainly had not dulled my appetite.
The 22 yr old Austen is played by the very pretty Anne Hathaway, who you'll know from Brokeback Mountain and The Devil Wears Prada. We meet her family when her older sister is happily married. The cash-strapped parents have the pressing problem of finding eligible young Jane a husband. A promising offer is the stuck-up relative of wealthy Lady Gresham (Maggie Smith), who Jane rejects.
Let's meet Tom Lefroy. He's a penniless, charming, intelligent, apprentice lawyer. He also loves boxing, drinking and the fairer sex. These latter hobbies, mind you, do not endear him to his uncle, the imperious Judge Langlois, who promptly sentences him to a summer in Hampshire as punishment. In a rustic backdrop of dancing and match-making, Jane and Tom develop a teasing, flirtatious rapport. Unlike the other men in her life, Tom presents Jane with intellectual company as well as dashing good looks and a flair for the odd chat-up. As they grow more serious about each other, they become equally aware of how doomed their relationship is - something their elders twigged on page one. But Tom has given Jane something she needs - the knowledge of the heart that will impassion her writing.
Firstly be warned. If you are expecting a nice feel-good movie, don't bother. This made me thoroughly miserable. Not just because a poignant lonely destiny is too much to bear, but because it's a wasted opportunity to bring a great life to the screen. Our ultimate theme Austen's writing, yet we see little to convince that this bland and photogenic girl has much between the ears. In Devil Wears Prada, an outstanding script enabled Hathaway to suggest hidden brainpower. In Becoming Jane, the occasionally erudite lines sound leaden and false. Her body language, meant to portray a rebel, seems a bit anachronistic. Although she looks quite resplendent, dashing across the hills in a billowing red dress to watch the lads skinny-dipping, the film is a sad disappointment in the development of Hathaway's otherwise promising career. Kate Winslet or Natalie Portman (who were apparently also considered for the role) might well have fared better: they have a depth and experience that could perhaps have compensated for such a clunky script. Maggie Smith and other strong actors are reduced to ciphers and little more than icing on a badly made cake.
On the other hand, James McAvoy (fresh from The Last King of Scotland) is a revelation. In what seems like a flash of brilliance in the generally myopic casting, he shines in every scene. A talented actor, he also brings his skills in boxing and sport to imbue Lefroy with vibrancy and charisma. It is when he works his seductive charms on Jane that he also brings out the best in his co-star. After her first adult kiss, Jane trembles, wondering if she has done it well. Hathaway does gooey-eyed emotion much better than persuading us she is a genius about to happen. The film gathers pace as we are drawn into an emotional cat and mouse. Jane's 'experience of the heart' that will inspire her, is the one of the best things about the film, second only to the large and constantly moist dollops of budget-saving Irish countryside.
But how does the film reflect on Jane Austen the author? Austen's possible flirtations with Mr Thomas Langlois Lefroy are more speculative than fact. Historian Jon Spence worked as a consultant on the film and has written a book of the same name, which is probably a must-have for Austen fans. He gives attention to the inspiration he feels Lefroy gave to Jane, and this is developed into actual events in the movie.
Austen is one of the most influential and revered novelists of the early nineteenth century and her social commentary is marked with a strong sense of irony. Devotees will no doubt enjoy scenes such as the one where she corrects Tom's uncle on the definition of the word 'irony'. But the transition from girlishness to mastery with words is so contrived that it could almost be two parallel scripts.
There are many that will love Becoming Jane in spite of its imperfections. The rest of us might wish it had been told better.
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