I just went to see the film Becoming Jane. Having read a couple of reviews, I didn’t want to see it but I arrived at nine p.m. at the cinema determined to see a movie and it was the least bad of my options.
On returning and doing a quick Google I can’t find a good review of it, though I guess they must exist. They generally portray the film as a cynical attempt to cash in. Jonathan Dawson begins wittily on the ABC website “It is a truth universally acknowledged that the BBC, or an American Cable Channel in possession of a fortune, or, indeed, any writer in need of a classy romantic plot, will sooner or later turn to Jane Austen.” He then concludes as do so many of the reviews “Becoming Jane is charming stuff and a pleasant diversion, but pales beside the original. Every character seems like a cut and paste pinch from the Austen oeuvre, least successfully the character of âJaneâ herself.”
Well maybe that’s right. You have the advice of lots of reviewers who say pretty much the same thing. Me? Well a couple of warnings. I love Jane Austen, I love the eighteenth century (which Jane Austen has honorary admittance to in my book even though she wrote her great novels in the early nineteenth century). I am also given to enthusiasms when I like something.
And I really liked Becoming Jane. There’s a problem I think with the way its reviewers have taken their own expectations to it and this has then (it seems to me) distorted their response. There are lots of criticisms of the film being a pale immitation of Jane Austen. Well, yes, the film is not a work of genius and Jane Austen’s novels are. But then that’s a pretty ridiculous standard to apply.
I liked the derivativeness of the characters which so many of the reviews panned. They’re all good characters, and why not take them from Jane’s fiction – amended as the story requires in precisely the way that most writers (including Jane Austen?) take models from life and alter them to suit. The adaptation of scenes from Pride and Prejudice is a perfectly plausible way to reconstruct a romance that she had. If you weren’t a literary genius how else would you do it? In this sense I agree with one brief review which says this. “Itâs a film easy to enjoy because it does not take itself too seriously.”
Likewise take note of what is said by Jon Spence who wrote the biography Becoming Jane Austen on which the film was (loosely) based.
[My book and the film] are tremendously different, and that was one of the things that I learned from being associated with the film. When I first read the screenplay I had lots of questions; why did you do this, because you could make it closer to what actually happened, and you could change this or that. But I came to realise that because of the demands…what will be good visually, how do you create the rhythm of a film…it’s quite different from the rhythm of a novel and certainly of a biography. And so the people who wrote the screen play were inspired by it, let’s say, and then they let their imaginations go. What impressed me from the very beginning is what a good story they made of it.
The film has a powerful artistic point which it makes with clarity, economy and passion. That point relates to Jane’s irony and the way in which it was the heart of her art. It proposes that Jane’s passionate but impossible romance with Lefroy was the foundation of her art. Historical verisimilitude is not particularly relevant here – this is historical fiction and the point of the story is the relationship between art and life.
It is because it makes this point – a different point to Austen’s novels – I think it is very successful at what it attempts to do. There is also something else – very important in film. The protagonists – Anne Hathaway and James McAvoy can really act. And that makes a huge difference (Just imagine if Ronald Reagan had got that job as lead in Casablanca!). Some reviewers said that Anne Hathaway looked too good to be Jane. Well perhaps – but I wasn’t complaining.
Becoming Jane presents the (tragic?) distance between life and art and shows how it came to be that things worked out in Jane Austen’s fiction, whilst they did not in her life and how, like us all, she somehow sought to make something of that very unnerving state of affairs.