In case you thought Jane Austen was a fusty spinster who spent her downtime doing crochet, Becoming Jane should relieve you of this notion. Mercifully, director Julian Jarrold resists turning a literary icon into a 19th century Bridget Jones, but this story does take a few flights of somewhat dubious fancy in speculating on her relationship with the real Mr Darcy. It's just as well that, in the title role, Anne Hathaway is a romantic heroine of delightfully dignified verve.
Sparks fly when 20-year-old Jane meets rebellious young lawyer Tom Lefroy (the effervescent James McAvoy). Like the bristling dynamics between Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy in Pride & Prejudice, they engage in a battle of wits and witticisms - Lefroy relishing her blushes with each sexual innuendo he drops. Jarrold makes much of the contrast between Jane's contained passion and Lefroy's loose cannon antics and it makes for a saucy and sprightly romance yarn in the first half. But then come the storm clouds...
"SHIFTS FROM SATIRE TO MELODRAMA"
Circumstances contrive to keep Jane and Tom apart and the Austenesque social satire turns to melodrama. It's a natural and inevitable shift, but the pace slightly lags as complications pile up. A decision to elope doesn't ring true, instead feeling like a gauche attempt to inject urgency. This toing-and-froing also means there's little time left for the tribulations Austen faced as a female writer straining against the boundaries of Regency society. Austenophiles may turn their noses up at some of the liberties taken, but thanks to the combined charm of the leads, this remains a most agreeable cinematic portrait.
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