The premise behind “Becoming Jane,” the sumptuous-looking quasi-biopic about the beloved Ms. Austen, is that Jane Austen’s life often resembled a Jane Austen novel — “Pride & Prejudice” specifically, I guess, though my familiarity with Austen’s works comes only from having seen the movies based on them.
Which brings this question to my mind: Why make a movie that so closely resembles “Pride & Prejudice” when that story has already been filmed a number of times? Why, there was a perfectly good “Pride & Prejudice” just two years ago! Making it about the author’s life gives it a certain cuteness, I’ll grant you, the way “Shakespeare in Love” was deemed clever for combining elements of the Bard’s plays with his personal life. But take Jane out of the equation — replace her with any of your basic period-piece-romantic-costume-drama heroines — and you’re left with mere trifle.
It’s not bad trifle, though. Anne Hathaway makes for a lively Jane, equal parts gentility and slyness, and we’ll overlook her good-but-not-great English accent. She’s in her early 20s when we meet her, and already considering the idea of living off her writing rather than by finding a husband. Her parents (Julie Walters and James Cromwell) are not amused by this nonsense, of course, and Mrs. Austen makes it clear not just that Jane must get married, but what her criteria should be in finding a mate: “Affection is desirable. Money is indispensable.”
Jane, meanwhile, is learning that wit “is the most treacherous talent of all” for women, and she has it in spades. She finds Mr. Wisley (Laurence Fox), the young man her parents and an old dowager (Maggie Smith) keep trying to set her up with, to be unbearably dull-witted.
Then, dashing into her life like a bull in a china shop, there is Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy). Tom is a budding young lawyer who enjoys boxing and making trouble in his off hours. His uncle has sent him out to the country to cool off for a while, and he stumbles into the Austen home just as Jane is favoring the guests with a reading of some of her work. Tom is bored, and horrified by the apparent length of Jane’s selection. (“There’s writing on both sides of those pages!”)
Jane and Tom meet, disagree, like each other, are at odds with each other, quarrel, make up, etc. You know the drill. The screenplay (by British TV writers Kevin Hood and Sarah Williams) is nothing special, but director Julian Jarrold (“Kinky Boots”) maintains a light touch and gives his talented actors room to create amusing characters. Hathaway and McAvoy show some chemistry together, while James Cromwell and Julie Walters make for a feisty couple of elder Austens. And though we’ve seen Maggie Smith play imperious old women a thousand times before, it’s always fun to see her again.
And that is “Becoming Jane”: nothing you haven’t seen before, but kind of fun to see it again. Kind of. Really, though, there was that “Pride & Prejudice” in 2005. Keira Knightley was in it. She was really good! I’m just sayin’.
B- (1 hr., 52 min.; )