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July 9, 2007 | by  | in Film |
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Becoming Jane

Early this year, my property law lecturer asked the class to raise their hands if they had read Pride and Prejudice. When the female half (or rather, two thirds) of the class did so, she commented that the question usually provoked a gendered response. Like Austen’s work, Becoming Jane could have easily fallen into the ‘too girlie to be taken seriously’ trap. Anne Hathaway and James McAvoy star in a film which dramatises (and probably significantly embellishes) a brief flirtation between the young Austen and Tom LeFroy, a roguish law student.

Backed by an outstanding support cast of James Cromwell, Julie Walters, Maggie Smith and Ian Richardson, the film explores the typically Austenian themes of passion building from the pair’s initial mutual dislike of each other, and the numerous social obstacles in their path. However, unlike the books, the film should have much wider appeal due to its inclusion of bare-knuckle boxing, nudity (admittedly only a brief river swim), and the fact that the chemistry between Hathaway and McAvoy is genuine, and the physical chemistry even more so.

The other reason Becoming Jane could have slipped up is that Jane Austen period pieces have been done to death in film. Happily, the film neatly sidesteps this trap too. Though it includes the obligatory (and, by now, thoroughly clichéd) ball dance scene where the leads exchange witty repartee, the physical chemistry again shines through, elevating it beyond a mere rehash. Austen’s novels are grounded in words, not simply because they are in a written form, but also because the chemistry between the characters comes from their incisive and loquacious use of words. Here, Becoming Jane takes full advantage of the film medium in a way that the excellent BBC miniseries did not (perhaps the most celebrated element of the miniseries its faithfulness to the novel), making it something quite different, and very effective.

Although the film is not without faults, I found it an engaging and successful attempt to project Austen’s world and talents, so well documented in words, in cinematic form.

JULIAN JARROLD

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