Becoming Jane (2007)

Starring: Anne Hathaway, James McAvoy, Ian Richardson, Julie Walters, Maggie Smith, Anna Maxwell Martin, Joe Anderson, James Cromwell, Laurence Fox

Directed by: Julian Jarrold

Rating: 1 2 3 and a half

Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen and James McAvoy as Tom Lefroy in Becoming Jane

I was furious. 'My characters shall have. all that they desire,' Jane Austen expounds dreamily in the trailer for the romantic biopic Becoming Jane. My characters shall have all that they desire? How badly can you miss the point of Jane Austen's scrupulously, almost cruelly, just novels? My characters shall have all they deserve, Anne Hathaway, you daft, doe-eyed American. DESERVE.

But in actual fact, it was me who was missing the point of this sweet little film, which charts the passage of the young novelist from wide-eyed, naïve innocent who believes that love can conquer all, to the older, wiser pragmatist who realises that, sadly, one can live without love, but one cannot live without an income.

Becoming Jane centres around the doomed (and fairly much fictitious) romance between our literary heroine and the young Irish rake Tom Lefroy (the ubiquitous James McAvoy), a romance which supposedly informed her classic novels. Certainly the film does its best to pull in as many Austen-esque clichés (and serial Austen cast members) as it can. Spirited daughter of impoverished clergy family with mother desperate to marry her off? Check. Arrogant hero she hates at first sight? Check. Posh old lady played by Maggie Smith, stirring things up in the background? Check. Penniless soldier who looks good in uniform? Check. Carriages, dances, rolling hills, unlikely proposals and unsuitable liaisons? Check, check, check, check and check. Young men skinny dipping alfresco - oh, Jane Austen never actually wrote that, did she? Oh well, check anyway.

You get the picture. And at first, you might be forgiven for feeling that you've seen it all before - and are about to see it many times over again, with both ITV and the BBC waging a battle of the bonnets as they swamp our screens with empire line dresses and elopements. But as the plot thickens, the film, like its heroine, begins to find its feet. Like Austen's novels, it rails against yet accepts with resignation the injustices of a society that doomed its brightest men and women to lives of inactivity: of a system of inherited wealth that rendered promising young men powerless and dependent, with nothing to do but wait on the death of some cantankerous old relative, and a propriety-bound patriarchy that offered clever young women a stark choice between subsuming their talents into marriage and motherhood or facing a marginalised life as a lonely spinster.

James McAvoy and Anne Hathaway have real chemistry in Becoming Jane

And then there's Anne Hathaway. Yes, she was a revelation in Brokeback Mountain, and utterly delightful in The Devil Wears Prada, but can she do a Gwyneth Paltrow and pull off a perfect English accent? Well. sort of. She slips up occasionally ('congradulations?' what's that all about?) but looks so charming and plays her role so sincerely, you can't help falling for her anyway (although I can't help thinking that Bleak House's Anna Maxwell Martin, who plays Jane's elder sister Cassandra, would have been more suitable).

But even if you're not convinced by Hathaway, the supporting cast more than makes up for any reservations you may have. McAvoy, with more than a touch of the Ewan McGregors about him, is roguishly charismatic as Lefroy, and his scenes with Hathaway have real chemistry, while Julie Walters is perfect as Jane's mother, and thankfully goes easy on the embarrassing Mrs Bennett histrionics. And, if nothing else, it's worth paying to see the late great Ian Richardson in his final screen role, as Lefroy's cold-hearted uncle, the High Court Judge Langlois.

With Pride and Prejudice riding high at the top of the books we (supposedly) can't live without and no cessation of Austen on our telly, the release of Becoming Jane couldn't be more timely. Picturesque and engaging, it's a charming, if flawed, film with a sad twist in the tale. If Austen's novels (and characters) can be accused of being mercenary, then this film explains with dignity and pathos how their author was forced to learn the hard way that love always comes at a price.

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