At the afternoon showing I attended, there were middle-aged Austen groupies laughing too hard at the literary allusions and hoping for a tower of romance to be erected on the foundation of a couple of letters Austen once wrote to her sister about a boy named Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy).
Well, Anne Hathaway is more beautiful and self-assertive than Austen ever was. (Yes, Hollywood romanticizes.) And this filmic tale of simmering-and-then-boiling-over love is more crammed with incident than Austen actually experienced in rustic Hampshire.
Director Julian Jarrold's quiet start -- quill pen scratching, clock ticking, pigs suckling in the barnyard -- establishes the note of rural tedium. (He purposefully repeats the sequence late in the film.) Jarrold favors a swirling camera for revelers carousing down a stairwell, swish pans and a jerky camera for the chaos of sudden grief, tight close-ups for the wordless emotion of a formal dance.
Marriage in the 1790s was still primarily a business transaction, with women having to argue for the right to choose a mate based on "affection." In effect, Austen's life and career were about gaining women the right to choose for themselves -- even while less perceptive types were still chasing after money.
What Becoming Jane also conveys is the sexiness of emotional restraint. Every five seconds, it seems, these people are bowing and curtseying to each other: Etiquette channeled desire. During the formal dancing at a country estate, young lads and lasses in their cravats and high-waisted gowns dip their knees, touch hands, whisper softly -- and all the while, hearts are pounding and futures are being determined. There's a scene in a library between Hathaway and McAvoy, complete with allusions to authors like Joathan Swift and Henry Fielding, that induces erotic tension without so much as a hand carelessly brushed against a sleeve.
Earlier McAvoy -- Byronic-looking in his side-swept hair, ornate vests and top hat -- sloshes about in the mud so we'll know he's a city fop out of his element in a country wood. He ranges engagingly from haughtiness to passion, from impulsiveness to practicality.
Hathaway's acting is in her eyes: She blinks at compliments, glances away when challenged and then thinks better of it, lowers her eyelids ever so slightly when an eligible man (or contentious older one) hovers into view.
As an Austen fan myself, what I took from Becoming Jane was not just that Tom Lefroy was a model for Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, but that Darcy's arrogance was a projection of Jane's own. "You consider yourself a cut above these people," he whispers to Jane at a ball, and that's woundedness in her eyes. Darcy's insufferable because Jane realized that she seemed so to others.
But in the novel, Darcy comes round in the end and professes his love to Elizabeth Bennet. The movie doesn't extend the same promise of a happy ending: We know, after all, that Jane never married. She died at 41 without all her novels published, without knowing just how revered they would become. Becoming Jane takes license with some hints from her life, but it's also a reminder that unrequited love can fuel some affecting prose. It's a movie that knows how to dramatize the essentially undramatic life of an author. (Rated PG)