Arriving on the heels of Joe Wright’s excellent adaptation of Pride & Prejudice, on paper Becoming Jane couldn’t have a safer design if it were a Volvo: the story of how England’s most famous authoress fell in love and discovered her artistic mojo. So far, so MORE. Feminist critics might take exception to the idea that the inspiration for Austen’s success stemmed from a stymied heart, while literary scholars may bleat about liberties taken and history imagined. But for thousands of love-hungry couples seeking a mutually agreeable reason to cuddle up at the flicks, it’s terrific – eye candy for blokes and girls alike, with a smartly sneaking sense of the reality of relationships.
Doing the obligatory “Look, I’ve got range” Brit CV tick required of all upcoming ‘Next Big Thing’ American actresses (think Scarlett Johansson in A Good Woman, Reese Witherspoon in Vanity Fair and Gwyneth Paltrow in, well, everything...), Anne Hathaway is strong enough to stifle any jingoistic sideswipes, nailing the accent and attitude of a woman thought a little too forthright for her time, while rarely looking less than spectacular. Which isn’t to say that she can’t act – she can snot-up and emote with the best of them – but she has the je ne sais quoi of Julia Roberts on screen: it’s hard not to fall for her. James McAvoy is the roguish lawyer she battles wits with, after he’s exiled to the sticks for cavorting around London. It’s another charismatic but subtle turn from the Starter For 10 star, who is debonair and charming but convincingly flawed; always carrying the threat of flakiness, never allowing the audience a sure footing. The role carries echoes of Sense And Sensibility’s Willoughby, just as Laurence Fox’s straight arrow could be a blueprint for P&P’s awkwardly undemonstrative Darcy.
Screenwriters Kevin Hood and Sarah Williams skilfully capture Austen’s tone, with National Treasure™ Julie Walters fretting at her daughter’s fussiness in choosing a fellow: “Affection is desirable. Money is absolutely indispensable!” – a line that could come straight from an Austen novel. Director Julian Jarrold muddies up the palette, providing a pronounced sense of place and conjuring a completely convincing family dynamic (there’s a touching turn from Anna Maxwell Martin as Austen’s sister). Even as Jane’s romance see-saws for a little too long and a ‘years later’ epilogue ties things up a little too neatly, Becoming Jane coasts on goodwill because it’s irony-free and giddy with romance – an affectionate tribute to the writer and her subject: falling in love.