Of all truths to be universally acknowledged, I am, admittedly and with all possible pride, a nerd of the Jane Austen variety. Lovingly I have scanned the pages of each novel, appreciating the irony and humor. Adamantly I have viewed every film adaptation (that I am aware of), from Lee's Sense and Sensibility to Chadha's Bride and Prejudice, and, little by little, screenwriter's have slowly hacked away at her genius
sometimes successfully. I have borne scenes of Hugh Grant play sword fighting, of Keira Knightly stroking Matthew Macfadyen's calf, and of Colin Firth half nude admirably well (perhaps the latter more well than others), but occasionally a writer crosses that very fine line between revering the most beloved authoress and destroying all that which she created.
I do not pretend to be an Austen purist by any means; I understand that adaptations of her novels can't all be five hours long and follow her dialogue word for word. We, the Austen lovers of the world, must surrender that movies are not books, and cannot, therefore, be identical to them. Emma Thompson, for example, made countless changes in writing her version of Sense and Sensibility, yet the alterations which she made were necessary. To me, it would be just as much a disservice to Jane Austen to follow one of her novels word for word in the screenplay and produce a dull piece of cinema than it would be to add a sex scene to Persuasion. What is important, in my opinion, is that the finished film retain the spirit of the novel, the humor, the vivacity, all that which makes her works as timeless as they are. This noted, I must express my disappointment, perhaps even disgust, in Becoming Jane, or as I have not-so-affectionately nicknamed it, Kidnapping, Raping and Murdering Jane, which is neither accurate nor entertaining.
With Shakespeare in Love and Finding Neverland as models of success, Hollywood has pumped out disappointing flicks like Miss Potter, and now Becoming Jane, expecting viewers to lap it up, but what the first two are that the latter two are not is clever. They intermingle inspiration with biography, presenting the plot of the writer's lives almost as an ode to their work. Becoming Jane occasionally alluded to Pride and Prejudice, the most famous of Austen's six completed novels, but when it did so the allusions were weak and clearly forced. It was as though the screenwriters (Kevin Hood and Sarah Williams) were only familiar with Pride and Prejudice, ignoring her other five masterpieces. What is must frustrating about this is that it would have been so simple to allude to the other works. Have Cassandra (Jane's older sister) encourage Jane to be more sensible with regards to her romance, and voilà! Sense and Sensibility! Throw in a young character that introduces Jane to bachelors in hopes of making a match, and you've got Emma! But no, all that Kevin Hood and Sarah Williams could think to do was make Tom Lefroy, Jane's love interest, seemingly arrogant, but ultimately lovable.
Similarly, the film spends so much time expressing the tragedy of Jane Austen's situation that one forgets that Anne Hathaway is meant to be the clever, witty woman that has hypnotized so many modern readers. I do not mean to scorn the movie's somewhat unhappy ending, so unlike those in Austen novels, but the way in which it ignores her character. Finding Neverland, for example, expresses the sadness of J. M. Barry's life, yet at the same time presents the story in such a way that the viewer feels as though they are watching something as magical as Peter Pan. Though Becoming Jane is certainly inaccurate, even inaccuracies would be tolerable if they were done in the name of preserving the spirit of Jane Austen's works. Instead, we the viewer are presented with a poor composition of infrequent wit and mildly appealing romance, hardly reminiscent of any of Austen's books.
Apart from the abominable screenplay, the direction was mediocre and predictable at best. Julian Jarrold does produce a pretty shot here and there, but seems to have just discovered how to shoot an aerial view, and so puts them in practically every other scene.
In spite of this negativity, I must admit that some of the acting was unexpectedly good. Anne Hathaway as Jane has a fine British accent and acts much better than I would have predicted (this is, after all, the first movie I've ever seen her in that she doesn't start out a homely geek and end up a fashion-forward bombshell). It is James McAvoy as Tom Lefroy, however, that puts in the show stealing performance. Maggie Smith is, as usual, good, as are Julie Walters and James Cromwell, even if those blasphemists Hood and Williams chose to throw in a scene of a, well, questionable, nature between them.
Even with decent acting and direction, it is hard to produce a good movie based on a monstrous screenplay. The effect, all in all, is extremely disappointing. I would not recommend this movie to anyone who truly appreciates Jane Austen
or good cinema.