Saturday, July 21, 2012

A Shining Anne Hathaway Period Piece, Becoming Jane Succeeds!

The Good: Well-written, Wonderful acting, Interesting characters/development, Decent direction.
The Bad: Mediocre plot
The Basics: Becoming Jane uses an incredible cast to explore the early life of Jane Austen, much the way Shakespeare In Love did for the Bard!

In honor of the release of The Dark Knight Rises, I am doing my own little Anne Hathaway film festival at home and given that there are so few works of hers that I have not yet seen and reviewed, it is actually surprising to me that I have managed to pick up two of the three final films of hers for review this weekend! The first of the two films that I am taking in (I am on my third viewing, this time with the commentary track on as I write this review!) is Becoming Jane. When the film began, I felt like I had seen the film before, that it was a pretty simple retread in too many ways of Hathaway’s period piece from Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby, but fortunately it overcame that and as the film went on, I actually enjoyed it quite a bit.

More than simply a Jane Austen-focused film in the vein of Shakespeare In Love (reviewed here!), Becoming Jane is an interesting, fictionalized, version of Jane Austen’s early professional life. As Jane Austen encounters her first real sense of love, it challenges her and helps her to establish the paradigm she used that defined much of her style of literature. One of the immediate aspects of Becoming Jane that I enjoyed was that it was not simply an establishment and use of the Austenesque technique where a woman meets, loves, and rejects Suitor #1, then encounters Suitor #2 and through their relationship realizes that Suitor #1 is the right person for her. Becoming Jane does not fall into that simplistic trap and that helped make the film more refreshing than tiresome.

Jane Austen lives with her Reverend father, mother, and siblings in a state just above poverty. She writes for her own enjoyment and she performs for the family and visitors, much to their delight. But when Tom Lefroy comes to visit, he is less than enchanted with Austen’s writing and that surprises and challenges Jane. Meeting and seeing one another in a social setting, Lefroy challenges Jane Austen to write beyond what women were expected to write. LeFroy challenges Jane to experience more of life.

The challenge has its desired effect; she plays cricket against the men and witnesses Tom boxing, something she had only heard about before he came into her life. As Jane’s sisters try to marry off for wealth, Jane searches for love and despite proposals from other people, she and the penniless Tom grow closer and closer together. But when she tries to run off with Tom, their plans go awry and Jane moves in her own direction.

Becoming Jane is an appropriately costume-rich period piece that beautifully established 18th Century England (in, ironically, modern Ireland, according to the commentary track). The characters are interesting enough and the film focuses on Jane and Tom with enough for each of them to be viable, clever characters who are worth watching. On the plot front, it does seem somewhat predictable – even to those of us who know nothing of Jane Austen’s actual life – how Tom’s interactions with Jane would come to affect her writing.

Becoming Jane is a delightful romp for many wonderful actors and actresses. The lead, Anne Hathaway, gives an incredible performance that allows her to utilize her physical acting abilities. While nowhere near as aggressive physically as, for example, her role as Selina Kyle, as Jane Austen in Becoming Jane, Hathaway uses her eyes, the very slight upturn of her lips and a great sense of physical restraint to realistically characterize the young writer. Hathaway’s performance is subtle and decent for its ability to use a minimal amount of action to convey surprising depth and emotion.

Holding his own with Hathaway is James McAvoy as Tom Lefroy. McAvoy, who provided the shining superlative performance in The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe (reviewed here!) to first get noticed by me gives a strong, passionate performance in Becoming Jane. McAvoy is articulate and passionate and he has incredible range, which might be why I am finding I enjoy seeing him in new-to-me films on equal level with Hathaway. So, for example, in X-Men: First Class (reviewed here!), McAvoy plays smart and serious after a brief comic stint (with his character’s hitting on anything that moves), and in Becoming Jane he is delightfully emotional. Becoming Jane pushes his range and reinforces the idea that there might be no role he could not do. At the same time, McAvoy is fearless with the boxing scene and baring his buttocks for a brief swimming scene.

Becoming Jane is rounded out by a powerful series of supporting performances by wonderful actors and actresses who can be solidly, repeatedly, relied upon to give just that. The presence of Maggie Smith, James Cromwell, Ian Richardson, Laurence Fox, and Julie Walters does not guarantee that they will be utilized well, but director Julian Jarrold gets exactly what he needs out of them. Richardson’s brief role is one that makes him a powerful antagonist who can reasonably be assumed to exert as much control over Tom as he does. Cromwell seems able to play good gentlemen in any time or place for which he is cast and as Austen’s father, he is subtly liberal before he is browbeaten in a way that does not make his character seem broken.

Jarrold does an exceptional job of capturing very big emotions in very subtle movements and gestures. Laurence Fox, who plays Wisley – a suitor of Jane – is repressed, but very clearly has a passion boiling for Jane is amazingly presented. In the second dance scene in Becoming Jane, Julian Jarrold captures Smith, Fox, Hathaway and McAvoy’s most minimal gestures, eye movements and lip turns that express a vast wealth of complicated emotions and motivations.

That level of attention to detail makes Becoming Jane a film that must be attentively watched to truly appreciate the depth and nuance present in the film. On DVD, Becoming Jane includes a decent commentary track that discusses the making of the film and the differences between Austen’s real life and the compromises made for the film. There are extensive deleted scenes and a featurette as well.

Becoming Jane may have caught my attention for Anne Hathaway’s presence, but it was thoroughly enjoyable as both a study of great acting and astonishingly deep directing. That makes Becoming Jane very easy to recommend and one of the best period dramas I have seen in quite some time.

For works featuring Anne Hathaway, please check out my reviews of:
Anne Hathaway For Wonder Woman!
The Dark Knight Rises
One Day
Love And Other Drugs
Family Guy Presents: It's A Trap!
Alice In Wonderland
Valentine's Day
Twelfth Night Soundtrack
Bride Wars
Rachel Getting Married
Get Smart
The Devil Wears Prada
Brokeback Mountain
The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement
Ella Enchanted
Nicholas Nickleby
The Princess Diaries


For other films, be sure to check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the movies I have reviewed!

© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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