Fact proves just as charming as fiction in Becoming Jane, a beautifully crafted biography of Jane Austen that will hold an irresistible appeal to global audiences who swooned over big screen adaptations of Pride & Prejudice (2005) and Sense & Sensibility (1995).
Charting the early years and romantic tribulations of the author, it also traces the prototypes of characters and situations that would become familiar in her novels and emerges as a touching but tragic love story in its own right. The chemistry between co-stars Anne Hathaway and James McAvoy and their combined marquee value should position Becoming Jane as a potent middle-brow, mainstream attraction, especially in the UK, where it opens on March 9.
The casting of Anne Hathaway as quintessential English author Jane Austen provoked a flurry of controversy but purists will find little room for complaint over her performance. Her accent is in the Renee Zellweger league of Britishness and will cause little comment from international audiences.
Hathaway brings a spirit and charm to part that are the preserve of the true star and the film should only enhance her post-Prada status as a box-office draw.
The ubiquitous James McAvoy is equally charismatic as Tom Lefroy, the roguish charmer who steals her heart. Displaying a smirking self-confidence, he is the obvious inspiration for Mr Darcy and the other male figures that populate Austen's novel.
In its early stages, Becoming Jane seems little more than a real-life dry run for Pride & Prejudice. Jane is a young woman with a yearning to write but crucially aware that the family finances dictate that she must make a favourable match with an eligible male.
Her mother (Julie Walters) desperately attempts to matchmake whilst her father (James Cromwell) attempts to keep the peace. The penniless Lefroy, a potential suitor, seems arrogant and mocking but he treats Jane as an equal.
It is only in the second half of the film that the complications of life come to overshadow the certainties of fiction. Devotion cannot overcome the call of duty, the head must rule the heart and we come to understand that Austen may have embraced fiction for its ability to provide the happy endings that life could not.
Becoming Jane benefits from an especially eloquent, witty screenplay by Sarah Williams and Kevin Hood that makes very precise use of language. It seems true to the period yet is also fresh and accessible to a modern audience and studiously avoids the anachronistic.
It also deftly supplies motivation and complexity to even the most secondary of characters with revealing moments in which Jane's mother angrily expresses the bitterness she feels for a lifetime of scrimping and mending or Jane's hapless suitor Mr Wisley (Fox) is shown to have an inner life as sensitive and thoughtful as her own.
Filmed in Ireland, Becoming Jane boasts some pretty locations and attractive cinematography by Eigil Bryld. The pace may seem a little measured at times but that pays off in the richness of the storytelling and a downbeat denouement that is genuinely moving.
Director Julian Jarrold exerts a more commanding control over the material here than he did on Kinky Boots. It bodes well for the forthcoming version of Brideshead Revisited which reunites many of the creative talents behind Becoming Jane.
UK Film Council
Irish Film Board
Buena Vista International
Emma E Hickox
Anna Maxwell Martin