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'Jane' Isn't Quite Austen, But It Is 'Becoming'

The English countryside's marital pickings may be slim in 1795, but in Becoming Jane, when 20-year-old Jane Austen catches the eye of a gentleman of wealth and position, she does just what the heroine in any real Jane Austen romance would do: She turns him down because she finds him dull.

This is all much to the distress of her mother, who lectures her sternly: "There is no money. ... You will have nothing unless you marry." When Jane suggests she could live by her pen, her mother scoffs: "Let's knock that notion on the head once and for all." This, I believe, is called ironic foreshadowing.

In any event, the reason Jane is hesitating about her rich, dull suitor is that she also has a dashing, penniless suitor — one Mr. Lefroy, with whom she enjoys the occasional battle of wits. Two potential husbands, disapproving parents, a yawning class divide: What's a would-be author to do?

Well, write about them, presumably. But in a movie, she must also do something a little more active. Like, say, argue about writing: When her Mr. Lefroy says she'll need a little more experience if she intends "to be the equal of a masculine author," Jane questions his credentials as both literary critic and worldly advisor. He responds, with an almost salaciously ripe spin on the final word, that he's worldly enough "to know that your horizons must be ... widened."

Er, shouldn't that be "broadened?" Well, never mind. Austen didn't write the screenplay, after all, though her characters and plot twists are all over it — a suitor from one novel, an elopement from another, a country dance from a third.

I won't pretend I know which ones attach to which books. All of Austen sort of blends together in my head. Sense and ... Prejudice? Pride and Sensibility? And which one has that guy Darcy again?

Which makes this film's mix-and-match approach just fine with me. You could quibble about the occasional modernism creeping into the dialogue — which is definitely not in a class with Austen's — and biographical purists will doubtless complain that that flirtation with the real Mr. Lefroy (who later became Lord High Justice of Ireland) is referred to exactly twice in all of Austen's hundreds of letters. The filmmakers have, shall we say, embroidered.

But there's still plenty of pleasure to be had from the film's Merchant Ivory-style lushness, and from performances that almost ache to be called sparkling. Anne Hathaway's spunky Jane, James MacAvoy's briefly gallant Lefroy, Maggie Smith's imperious Lady Gresham: Everyone in Becoming Jane seems well aware that they're making not art, but a frothy romp — the cinematic equivalent of a good read for the beach.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.