Becoming Jane is a cute little romance, awash with lovely period costumes, gorgeous scenery and passionate glances between pretty people.
Just don't expect it to tell you anything about Jane Austen.
Austen is one of the best-loved novelists in English literature, but little is known about her life. We do know that she never married, or became famous during her life: The books she published before her death at 41 were credited only to "a lady."
Almost two centuries after her death, Austen is more popular than ever, her books selling briskly and inspiring scads of movies and television adaptations. But it's hard to tell who the target audience might be for Becoming Jane, even though it's supposed to be based on her life. Certainly not the dedicated Janeites, who treasure accurate detail and well know Jane is not going to get the guy.
Becoming Jane plays fast and loose with details major and minor, first in casting Anne Hathaway (The Devil Wears Prada) as Jane. Hathaway, with her plush lips, enormous eyes and willowy limbs, looks fabulous in the period costumes (Empire-waist dresses will no doubt be flying off the racks). But she looks nothing like Austen, for whom the sobriquet "plain Jane" might well have been invented.
As for plot, the screenwriters take a brief flirtation Austen mentioned in a couple of letters to her sister, Cassandra, and whip it into a life-changing romance.
James McAvoy (The Last King of Scotland) is adorable as the object of Jane's desire, Tom Lefroy (although, in another merry shrugging-off of realism, it's never explained how Lefroy grew up in Limerick and came away without a trace of Irish accent).
The movie seems to suggest that Tom would become a model for Mr. Darcy (in one scene we see Jane write a big chunk of the draft of Pride and Prejudice in a single night), but he doesn't seem a bit like him. Tom is impulsive, tender-hearted and, most importantly, penniless; Darcy is emphatically none of the above.
On the plus side, Ireland stands in beautifully for Austen's native Hampshire, and a grand cast of British pros fills out the ranks of Jane's family and friends, including Maggie Smith as the deliciously snobbish Lady Gresham and Julie Walters as Jane's harried mother, who married for love and begs her daughter not to.
Becoming Jane might be forgiven on the grounds that love and its negotiations were always Austen's subject. But this romance is tricked out in rather more cinematic wallowing in heartbreak (keening violins, troubled faces viewed through rain-streaked windowpanes) than the no-nonsense Austen would have countenanced.
And the filmmakers couldn't resist a coda whose historical inaccuracy is rivaled only by its smarmy sentiment. It wouldn't be ladylike, but one can only imagine Miss Austen rolling her eyes at that one.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at (727) 893-8435 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Director: Julian Jarrold
Cast: Anne Hathaway, James McAvoy, Julie Walters, James Cromwell, Maggie Smith
Screenplay: Kevin Hood, Sarah Williams
Rating: PG; brief nudity, a few mild profanities
Running time: 120 min.