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Dew-drenched countryside, floor-dusting dresses, witty banter, and repugnance quickly evolving into romance — the lush opening scenes of Becoming Jane have the trappings of any other Austen adaptation. Then, at the point at which events should converge toward the tidy ending of a wedding, the story strays into more dismal territory and viewers realize the filmmakers have taken them on a different journey. Beloved British novelist Jane Austen once scrutinized her late 18th-century society with equal parts wit and elegance, and now Becoming Jane attempts to peer behind the curtain for a glimpse of a life fraught with far more heartbreaks than happy turns.

Because of inheritance laws that cut women out of the loop, a woman’s only real prospect for a secure future in Austen’s day was an agreeable marriage. Thus Austen’s novels map the tedious negotiations of love and matrimony — and the social landmines that might blow all of one’s hopes apart along the way — with nail-biting urgency. Austen herself, however, never married and managed with her family and her books’ earnings until she died at 42.

In his 2003 biography Becoming Jane Austen, Jon Spence pores over letters to, from, and about Austen and settles upon an idea that has challenged the image of Austen as a dull spinster. Austen’s brief remarks about equally prospect-less friend Tom Lefroy, Spence feels, were written in nuanced language that hints Lefroy and Austen meant much more to each other. With this hypothesis Spence provides the simple framework for Becoming Jane. The filmmakers then nailed on the boards, hung the shutters, painted frescoes, and rolled in the baby grand with gusto. Becoming Jane as a film, in other words, is a highly imaginative leap.

Actress Anne Hathaway transforms Austen into a willowy beauty holding her own against the roguish Lefroy (The Last King of Scotland’s James McAvoy) while being pursued by a wealthy suitor and, unknowingly, a cousin who secretly undermines her chance at happiness. The latter two plot-points are fictionalized, and by all accounts Lefroy was anything but roguish. But if Austen purists can set their fact sheets aside, the movie does prove to be an expansive look into darker corners Austen herself avoided in her stories — from the drunken bare-knuckle boxing matches at a rural fair to the ways in which societal rules and family obligation could forever squash one’s own dreams and desires.

While Spence and Becoming Jane may be right to assert Austen was more like her heroines than previously acknowledged, there remains a huge difference. Unlike her characters, Austen was a successful woman writer in a male-dominated literary scene. Whereas her characters eventually succumb to expectations and happily settle down with appropriate matches, Austen defied norms by writing novels and (gasp!) earning a little money of her own. Ultimately, this difference might have been more intriguing to explore cinematically than the similarity. At least Becoming Jane features a few speculative scenes of Austen and Lefroy’s debates about novel-writing and Fielding’s Tom Jones to help viewers more richly, if briefly, imagine Austen as the astute writer she surely was. •

Becoming Jane
Dir. Julian Jarrold,writ Kevin Hood, Sarah Williams; 
feat. Anne Hathaway, James McAvoy, Julie Walters, James Cromwell, Maggie Smith 

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