Becoming Jane

Not a plain Jane.

"A woman especially if she has the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can." Jane Austen

Fortunately, Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen in Becoming Jane doesn't conceal her character's intelligence too well by her bearing and occasional quips, which are barbed missiles most of us supposed "intellectuals" would have been wise to avoid 200 years ago. Before her famous period, Jane Austen met a young Irishman, Tom Lefroy, and this rendition does the docudrama approach to imagine what happened between them.

With the exception of an exchange about Fielding's Tom Jones, most of the action in this pleasant biopic is probably fiction but based on Jane's character as it is filtered through Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, for instance. That a young girl of limited circumstances, such as a parson's daughter, should marry well is axiomatic in rigid early 19th-century England. That a roguish young barrister who relies on a rich uncle to live a comfortable life should look for a wife among the wealthy is also de rigueur.

By falling in love, after the caustic interchanges that usually lead to affection in film and literature, Jane and Tom swiftly become as characters out of an Austen romance. Where the film disappoints me is those moments, such as with the Lady Gresham (Maggie Smith), where Jane backs away from a smart retort out of deference, undoubtedly proper activity at that time but unsatisfying dramatically since we have at the table one of the greatest communicators in the English language.

When she does argue with Tom's uncle, Judge Langlois (Ian Richardson), about the meaning of irony, like the film critic Ego's candid analysis of his trade in Ratatouille, the "irony" argument opens up new thinking about an old topic, just what you'd expect from a brilliant author. I need more of that and less realistic convention. A docudrama should try hard to reveal the genius of its subject.

But the story rightly turns on marriage and the conventions that could derail even a transcendent author. As Mrs. Austen reminds us, "Affection is desirable. Money is absolutely indispensable!" So Jane's life is determined by rigid class proprieties while her novels will force them to begin their downward slide for the next 200 years. Such is the irony of life.