I am partial—quite possibly to a fault—to films that are first and foremost about making art. I watched Becoming Jane last night, an experience which reminded me of Finding Neverland, one of my favorite films of all time.
Before I lavish praise upon Becoming Jane, I will allow for and acknowledge the innate flaws of the genre. Of course, in biopic-esque films such as these, a fictitious plot gives flesh and bones to mere morsels of historical evidence—which are just enough to tantalize the imagination but not necessarily give credence to the veracity of such incidents. Films like this inevitably encourage a convenient revision of fact for the express purpose of creating a compelling narrative arc.
For instance, the final scene in the aforementioned Finding Neverland features Johnny Depp’s J.M. Barrie giving comfort and hope to Freddie Highmore’s Peter Llewellyn-Davies, one of the foursome that inspired the real J.M. Barrie’s tales of Peter Pan and Neverland. It made for a fine, cathartic conclusion to a beautiful film, but the scene chose to gloss over the historical realities, including the personal tragedies (premature death, estrangement from J.M. Barrie himself, suicide) which the Llewellyn-Davies sons encountered in their adult lives.
Such is the nature of the beast.
And Becoming Jane succumbs to the same shortcomings, which are necessarily warranted by the genre. One cannot completely divorce the art created from the historical fact in which the art is rooted. The latter informs the former. And quite possibly vice versa.
And yet, I’ve found that this innate flaw is the genre’s greatest strength, indeed one of Becoming Jane’s assets, aside from stellar casting (I for one don’t care that Anne Hathaway is not British) and tasteful direction. This intertwining of fact and fiction packs a more emotional punch because of the liberty it lends to the viewer’s imagination. The ambiguity creates the illusion of fact, and enables the audience to find a deeper empathy with the protagonist, dangling before them that tantalizing bit of “What if?” allowed by both the historical evidence and the fictional narrative.
In Becoming Jane, a film inspired by the events of Jane Austen’s life as is recorded in the biography Becoming Jane Austen, seeks to explore the emotional core of Jane Austen and discover what events in her seemingly mundane life could have inspired some of the greatest romance stories of all time, particularly Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy. It suggests that Jane’s own real life romance with Tom Lefroy ignited her imagination, even inspiring “First Impressions,” the precursor to Pride and Prejudice.
I confess I’ve always been a bit perplexed at how in the world someone who led such a short, seemingly unremarkable life could have written such compelling and entertaining novels absolutely brimming with human truth. Those short biographies in the beginning of most Jane Austen Penguin Classic or Bantam paperbacks don’t help either. Those cold, matter-of-fact appraisals (so-and-so was born here, raised here, moved here, and died in this year) squeezed into a mere paragraph or two often offer no real insight into her life, and seem to suggest that she merely pulled these stories out of the proverbial hat.
Jane Austen was clearly an extraordinarily observant woman, refined and astute in the study of human character. Combine that with a rich inner life, sharp and satirical wit and endless imagination, I suppose it’s possible that recipe alone would be enough to birth works of literary brilliance.
But part of me always believed that her characters and stories were rooted in something real. As a songwriter, I appreciate art that is born out of experience and emotional journey, of having our “horizons widened” as the character Tom Lefroy suggests.
The film gives more than a nod to the real Jane Austen’s obvious (albeit satirical) predilection for happy endings, suggesting that real-life loss and disappointment quite possibly motivated her to resolve the unhappy circumstances of her protagonists who attain “after a little trouble, all that they desire.”
I also need to praise Anne Hathaway’s portrayal of Jane Austen. She brought a certain coltish energy and refined intelligence (she apparently wrote her senior English thesis on Jane Austen) to the role that few other actresses could have brought to the table. My only prior exposure to Anne Hathaway has been The Princess Diaries and The Devil Wears Prada, hardly paragons of the film industry, but this film definitely increased my estimation of her. She became Jane Austen to me.
One particularly memorable moment is when Jane learns of Tom Lefroy’s familial responsibilities, and how she ultimately makes the heartbreaking choice to sacrifice her own happiness for the well-being of Tom’s family. To choose Tom—no matter how strong and passionate her affection—would be contrary to her own sense of duty and propriety. In effect, if she eloped with Tom knowing what she knew, Jane would cease to be Jane. The impossibility of circumstances—social impositions from Tom’s uncle and the Tom’s responsibility to his siblings—forced the only decision that Jane could make. Anne Hathaway pulled this off beautifully, and I could actually feel the life-altering gravity of her decision.
And James MacAvoy brings depth and charisma to a role in which he initially comes across as a careless, womanizing cad. Hard to believe that the annoying, dodgy character from the forgettable chick flick Wimbledon is fast becoming a Hollywood juggernaut. I still need to see Atonement, by the way…
Whether or not a relationship with Tom Lefroy was the true source of her inspiration is irrelevant in my opinion. It is not any stretch of the imagination to assume that real-life disappointment—in life, love, circumstances, whatever—influenced Jane Austen to reverse this reality via her writing. For me, the film illuminated the tragedy and beauty of that possibility.
And though the true, intimate and private moments of Jane Austen’s life–including her romance with Thomas Lefroy–may forever be shrouded in historical doubt, Becoming Jane invites the viewer to experience that tragedy and beauty in the traditional “tragic love” story, and all its rising hope, momentary blazing glory and inevitable forfeit.
P.S. I wrote this blog with a British accent in my head.
And you thought this was a serious blog… psch.
P.P.S. You know you want to go back and re-read it with the British accent.
Okay, I’m done.