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Movie Review

Art imitates art in 'Becoming Jane'

Given the current bull market in all things Jane Austen, it was inevitable that spinoffs would appear. In addition to the much-praised 2005 Keira Knightley "Pride & Prejudice" and the announcement that "Masterpiece Theatre" will soon tackle the entire Austen oeuvre, the 2004 novel "The Jane Austen Book Club" is on its way to the big screen. Titles like "Jane Austen's Guide to Good Manners" crowd store shelves, and you can buy a Jane Austen action figure on Amazon. A McDonald's "Ironic Meal" is probably in the works.

Which means it's time for a movie about Jane Austen: "Becoming Jane," starring Anne Hathaway as a young and ardent Hampshire lass quietly honing her art. Directed by Julian Jarrold ("Kinky Boots"), it falls squarely in the "Shakespeare in Love" genre, taking us behind closed doors with the great figures of literature. It's not bad, either -- lushly mounted, well played, pleasing to the eye and ear. Girls (and other people) who like the Austen movies and miniseries but haven't yet progressed to the novels will love it. But it's not Jane.

The conceit of Kevin Hood and Sarah Williams's screenplay is that all the elements of "Pride and Prejudice" were there in Austen's early life, ready to be transmuted into finely-spun gold. Jane's mother (Julie Walters) is a fusspot obsessed with marrying her daughters up the social ladder; father (James Cromwell) is a daydreamer better at emotional support than financial. A clumsy, lovestruck divinity student (Leo Bill) is a template for Mr. Collins. A wealthy grande dame (Maggie Smith) will become Lady Catherine de Bourgh. At times, "Becoming Jane" seems less homage than outright remake.

On top of all this literary influencing the movie lays a romance with a Darcy prototype. An arrogant young London barrister named Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy) visits the Austen household -- he's a friend of Jane's rakish soldier brother Henry (Joe Anderson) -- and scorns the girl's attempts at writing. (For good reason; the tribute Jane reads at her sister's engagement party is wordy and twee.) A meeting in the woods stiffens the pair's backs further. In Austen-land that can only mean love is around the next piece of topiary.

We know, of course, that Austen never married, and historical evidence of a romance with the real Lefroy is scanty and inconclusive. Anyway, by casting McAvoy the movie can't help but set Jane up for disappointment; the star of "The Last King of Scotland" does charming blue-eyed spinelessness better than any young actor out there.

Instead, the drama in "Becoming Jane" lies in watching the heroine separate her romantic dreams from her artistic ambitions, growing more sure of herself with each step. "Do I detect in you irony?!" thunders Tom's guardian, a wattle-shaking old judge played by Ian Richardson. "It is my belief that irony is an insult with a smiling face." Responds Jane, "No, irony is two contradictory truths brought together to make a new truth." You go, girl. High school English teachers everywhere thank you.

The scene with the most tender meat on it is Jane's encounter with Ann Radcliffe (Helen McCrory), during which the young writer sits at the feet of the successful novelist and absorbs wisdom like a sponge. Here the risks of what Austen hopes to accomplish become apparent. "To have a wife with a mind is considered not quite proper," Radcliffe warns Tom. "To have a wife with a literary reputation is nothing short of scandalous."

All this is deeply pleasing in a connect-the-literary-dots manner, yet something is missing, and it's Austen's own voice: watchful, wise, and clear as a country stream. Open any of her novels and knowingness lifts off the page, expanding far beyond the narrow drama of social status and betrothal. Here's a sentence chosen at random from "Sense and Sensibility": "Sir John was loud in his admiration at the end of every song, and as loud in his conversation with the others while every song lasted." The economy is startling, compacting observations about class and gender and human nature into 26 graceful words.

Anne Hathaway's Jane is headstrong and clever, balanced and true, but you never sense that restless observation -- the constant seeing what others miss -- that's present in every word Austen wrote. "Becoming Jane" is astute enough to recognize that art can make up for the failings of life ("Will all your stories have happy endings?" Jane is asked toward the end, and we all know the answer to that), but the movie makes the understandable mistake of treating the artist as one of her own creations. It's an appealing notion. All you have to do to outgrow it is read.


Becoming Jane

Directed by: Julian Jarrold

Written by: Kevin Hood and Sarah Williams

Starring: Anne Hathaway, James McAvoy, Julie Walters, James Cromwell, Maggie Smith

At: Boston Common, Boston, Kendall Square, Cambridge, West Newton, and suburbs

Running time: 113 minutes

Rated: PG (brief nudity and mild language)