Oh, wipe that starchy Masterpiece Theatre moue off your face. Pop Jane Austen is fun, especially when it's almost completely made up.
According to Becoming Jane, a new addition to the plentiful Austen spinoff canon, our lady of graceful letters was hot stuff at cricket and kissing and had a thing for wicked Wickham — not dull Darcy. Well, sort of. There actually is a sliver of evidence that at age twenty — when Miss Austen had completed an early version of Sense and Sensibility and was staring with admirably insufficient fright down the abyss of old maidenhood — she conceived warm feelings for Tom Lefroy, a young Irish lawyer reluctantly visiting her neck of the Hampshire woods. Though at least two reputable historians have stepped up and called their brief encounter a full-blown amour fou, next to nothing is known about what actually passed between Austen and Lefroy. Nothing came of it, and the bounder moved right along to marry money and father seven children. For all we know, Austen may have been a big flirt herself, or (far more likely) one of those painfully sensitive types for whom a single hurtful experience was enough to put her off men for life. Either way, her loss is our gain, for had she married Lefroy, there might have been no Pride and Prejudice — ergo, no Bridget Jones and, God forbid, no Colin Firth's bare torso.
Directed by Julian Jarrold. Written by Sarah Williams and Kevin Hood. Starring Anne Hathaway, James McAvoy, Julie Walters, James Cromwell and Maggie Smith.
None of which has stopped director Julian Jarrold (Kinky Boots) from working up a slickly pleasurable head of romantic steam about the encounter. For realism's sake, Jarrold checks in with the usual muddy hems, misty green fields and chickens clucking underfoot. But the job at hand is to give Austen the lively romantic life she probably never had. No doubt there was much gnashing of homegrown teeth at the casting of Anne Hathaway as Jane, and I can certainly think of others better suited to Austen's ironically reserved temperament: tart and funny Emily Blunt, for one, or a more mature Lucy Cohu, who has a small role in the movie as a worldlier, wealthier cousin. The posters for Becoming Jane show Hathaway in a tunic that bears an unfortunate resemblance to Julie Andrews's lonely goatherd getup in The Sound of Music, and there's certainly more giggly virgin than acerbic sophisticate in Hathaway's interpretation. She does make a frisky sparring partner, however, for the excellent James McAvoy, who, as Lefroy, introduces some sorely needed ambiguity in a sea of P & P impersonators. But following a delicious, if highly improbable, flirtatious exchange in which Lefroy lets Jane know that all she really needs is nookie, Becoming Jane turns serious. What I mean is, it turns into a Harlequin romance, with hurdle after hurdle leading to an elopement, a cruel uncle (the late, great Ian Richardson) who puts a wrench in the romantic works, and an eleventh-hour turnaround that, in the finest Austen tradition, puts good behavior before happily ever after.
Without a doubt, Becoming Jane strips Austen of the wit and dainty language that keep her novels on school curricula to this day. But two centuries after her death, Austen's most potent theme — unavailable men and the women who love them — continues to speak to women around the world, whether they've read her directly or through the romance novels (and, yes, self-help manuals) she inspired. This may be why, to the evident disgust of the manly critic sitting next to me, I wept like a baby when love lay bleeding on the ground.