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. And if you're an Austen reader, you can have an OK time just playing I-Spy Pride and Prejudice, whose spirited young Austen stand-in gets her man by dint of cheeky backtalk and high moral purpose, against all obstacles posed by family and friends. There goes flighty Mrs. Austen/Bennett (Julie Walters) with wry Mr. B. (James Cromwell) tagging along; the wealthy old witch (Maggie Smith, hamming adorably) with a somewhat Darcy-ish nephew (Laurence Fox) in tow, bent on screwing up Jane's love life; the dweeby vicar (Leo Bill) chasing Jane; and so on.
But the job at hand is to give Austen the lively romantic life she probably never had, and why not, since that's what she did herself in her novels? No doubt there was much gnashing of home-grown 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 with an unfortunate resemblance to Julie Andrews' lonely goatherd getup in The Sound of Music, and there's certainly more giggly virgin than acerbic sophisticate in Hathaway's interpretation. But that may be about right for this sheltered young woman who interacted mostly with sisters, and notwithstanding a tendency to deliver her lines as if declaiming Shakespeare, Hathaway makes a frisky sparring partner for the excellent James McAvoy. As Lefroy, McAvoy and his bedroom eyes introduce 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, by way of reading aloud from Tom Jones, 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 11th-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.