This is the second biopic of a British writer to open in recent months. First Hollywood gave us the sugary Miss Potter, with a rumpled Rene Zellweger striding through the Lake District. Now we have Becoming Jane, a look at the life of Jane Austen as a young woman, with another American, The Devil Wears Prada's Anne Hathaway, in the title role.
At the start of the film, the 20-year-old Jane is slowly driving her parents (played by Julie Walters and James Cromwell) mad, venting her creative frustration in noisy early morning piano sessions and stubbornly refusing to contemplate a relationship with the eligible nephew of wealthy widow Maggie Smith (in the pinch-lipped Lady Catherine de Bourgh role). Jane longs for a man who engages her intellectually and emotionally and, when dapper Irishman Tom Lefroy comes to stay, appears to have found one.
This is where things get fuzzy. The blossoming relationship that follows is at best speculative and unsubstantiated. The film's premise, that a thwarted love affair when young, influenced Austen's fiction, is drawn from a couple of letters written by Jane to her sister in which Lefroy is mentioned and not much else. It's not a lot to build a film upon. Shakespeare in Love played games with the love life of a British literary icon, but it was done with humour and invention and a tacit acknowledgement that it was just messing about. This walks a much finer line.
James McAvoy as the charming Tom adds further fuel to his reputation as one of Britain's most talented young actors and Anne Hathaway makes a pleasant enough Austen, though one wishes they cast someone a little spikier in the role. The supporting cast, drawn from the pool of familiar British character actors (though no Bill Nighy, for a change) all give solid performances, but there is a large lack at the heart of the film, an absence. The passion between Austen and Lefroy is simply not believable, down in part to a script that seems permanently uncomfortable about the liberties it is taking.
Julian Jarrold's film looks great, it has to be said; it's full of rich colours and thankfully free from the overt 'isn't England pretty' cinematography of Miss Potter. But it just strikes too many false notes, both in Jane's incongruously modern ways (she plays cricket with the boys and shocks them with her skill; she's friends with a deaf man and seems fluent in sign language) and also in the slightly insulting idea that one of the greatest literary works ever written by a woman only came about as a result of her emotional upheaval over Lefroy.
The tagline they've chosen for this film is: 'Her own life is her greatest inspiration.' What about talent and imagination? Don't they count for anything? One can't help feeling there's a better biopic to be made of Austen's life than this.