A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this film is a delightful exercise in imagination. No one truly knows whether Jane Austen and Tom Lefroy shared a grand passion, but the movie makes a great case for it. It's a romantic, often funny tale that tweens and teens will enjoy, though there are parts that could prove dicey for younger audiences, including a sexual interlude between Jane's parents and a brazen flirtation between an older woman and a younger man. (The banter may also go a little too fast for them to understand.) The language is sometimes complicated for younger audiences ("impecunious"), but it's fairly innocuous, except for one expletive ("s--t").
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What's the story?
Though she died a spinster, some academics have long suspected that there was more to writer Jane Austen's love life than we knew. Her books -- witty, epic and, yes, romantic -- so fully distilled the deliberations of men and women longing for connection but inhibited by their circumstances, it seemed impossible to think she'd never fallen in love herself. Yet on paper -- or, rather, in biographies -- it seems she hadn't. But what if she had? What if, despite Elizabeth and Emma, the author's most passionate female character turns out to be herself? Though we won't ever know for sure if Austen had loved deeply and lost, BECOMING JANE imagines it oh-so-deliciously possible. Based on a 2003 book by Jon Spence, the film depicts Austen as a fiery, strong-willed 20-year-old who meets Tom Lefroy (cannily captured by James McAvoy), a rakish Irish barrister, and instantly recognizes him as her meant-to-be. (In real life, many Austen historians have largely described their connection as a simple flirtation, if that. He did, however, name one of his children Jane.) Back in the late 1700s, however, women married for stability. Though she could write heroines who boldly flouted the conventions of their time -- who could, in essence, run off with whomever pleases their heart with no regard for practicality -- she wasn't always so daring. And society wasn't always so forgiving.
Is it any good?
Director Julian Jarrold and screenwriter Kevin Hood meticulously create a delightful, positively Austenian romantic comedy. It's replete with witty banter and characters inspired by those found in the writer's best-known books. (Lefroy is a mold for Mr. Darcy; Lady Gresham, played by Dame Maggie Smith, for Catherine de Bourgh.) The period details -- perfect down to how Austen wears her hair and what color dresses she has -- help bring to life the world she lived in. Anne Hathaway appears to do no wrong. From a teen princess to soul-searching intern and, with this, a literary icon, she absolutely commits to each role she chooses. Her British accent is spot-on; her mannerisms, believably studied. (Anna Maxwell Smith, who plays Jane's sister, Cassandra, is also a delight.) Almost more important than her acting is the chemistry she shares with McAvoy. For Austen fans to buy into the story, they must be believable onscreen, and their courtship dance is satisfying to watch -- literally. In one scene, the two size each other up while on a dance floor, their eyes revealing more than words can.
Some objections: The establishing shots give a sense of place, but Becoming Jane's not as deservedly pretty as adaptations of Austen's novels have been. And like Austen's tomes, the movie, nearly two hours long, moves unhurriedly. The pace slackens instead of builds. It's fine for the books, but takes away from the movie's strengths. Oddly enough, some parts feel rushed, however. The sudden buildup to the two lovers seeking approval from Lefroy's uncle, Judge Langlois (Ian Richardson), so they can marry seems forced. Still, you cheer for the pair when they attempt to make a go of it. And when it's clear they won't work out -- Lefroy, who depends on his uncle for help, supports his family back home -- the heartbreak is real. "If our love destroys your family," Hathaway utters, "it will destroy itself." Spoken like a true Austen heroine.
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