Moderately engaging, if flimsy, Brit lit

Posted: August 03, 2007

A speculative romance writ with one hand on the dog-earred pages of a Jane Austen biography, the other on Austen's own Pride & Prejudice (OK, that doesn't leave a hand to write with - someone must have dictated), Becoming Jane imagines the love life of the revered British literary figure, and how her affair of the heart gave birth to gobs of great prose.

Anne Hathaway, cheeks aglow, and working an acceptable accent, stars as the budding scribe, an independent-minded 20-year-old who pounds the family piano at ungodly hours, prompting the piggies in the barn to squeal, and her parents - a poor country vicar (James Cromwell) and his loving, worrywart wife (Julie Walters) - to scream.

Jane is already busy dipping nib into ink and scratching long, eloquent phrases on fine paper. But her experience in the world, her knowledge of its inhabitants, is ill-formed. Like Shakespeare in Love, a more successful elaboration of a like-minded concept, Becoming Jane gives its famous author various people, and predicaments, to build a plot around.

The lack of money, and the lack of opportunity for women in late-18th-century England, leave little choice for families like the Austens. Jane's older sister, Cassandra (Anna Maxwell Martin), is already engaged, and Jane is under pressure to accept the proposal of the pasty Mr. Wisley (Laurence Fox), the nephew of wealthy busybody Lady Gresham (Maggie Smith). But the keen, witty Jane will have none of it - she will not marry unless it is truly love.

Enter brash young Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy, of The Last King of Scotland), a law student under the tutelage and living under the roof of his uncle (Ian Richardson), a humorless London magistrate. Tom, having misbehaved (boozy nights in bawdy bars, bare-fisted boxing matches, etc.), is dispatched "deep in the country" to stay with relatives. There he meets Jane, promptly nodding off as she stands before a small group, reading aloud. It must be love.

Long walks in the woods ensue, as do heated debates about manners and mores. There are several grand dances, where the genteel crowd in proper frocks sidestep weighty issues as they step lively to dainty tunes. Jane and Tom's heart-breaking courtship clearly parallels Elizabeth's and Darcy's in Pride & Prejudice. Aha, this is where Austen got all that stuff!

Not bloody likely.

Shepherded along in somewhat choppy fashion by ex-TV director Julian Jarrold (Kinky Boots), Becoming Jane, based on a script by Sarah Williams and Kevin Hood, is moderately engaging pseudo-Brit-lit piffle. But with so many good Austen adaptations out there (the Keira Knightley Pride & Prejudice, the Colin Firth Pride and Prejudice, Emma Thompson and Ang Lee's splendid Sense and Sensibility), Becoming Jane seems a bit flimsy by comparison.

Becoming Jane **1/2 (out of four stars)

Directed by Julian Jarrold. With Anne Hathaway, James McAvoy, James Cromwell, Julie Walters and Maggie Smith. Distributed by Miramax Films.

Running time: 1 hour, 50 mins.

Parent's guide: PG (nudity, adult themes)

Playing at: Ritz at the Bourse, AMC Neshaminy, Regal Warrington Crossing and Showcase at Ritz Center/NJ

Contact movie critic Steven Rea

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