“Becoming Jane,” the imagined back story of Jane Austen, might have seemed like a solid corset-and-carriage flick if a couple of other movies hadn’t come along in recent years and covered similar territory in superior fashion.
One is “Shakespeare in Love,” the whimsical take on William Shakespeare’s inspiration and the surprise best-picture winner at the Oscars in 1999. The other is “Pride and Prejudice,” the rich, 2005 adaptation of Austen’s own beloved work starring a radiantly feisty Keira Knightley.
Here, Anne Hathaway (gorgeous, though with an intermittent British accent) stars in this portrait of the novelist as a young woman. Director Julian Jarrold (“Kinky Boots”), working from a script by Sarah Williams and Kevin Hood, explores the possibility that an unfinished romance between Jane and the arrogant Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy) might have provided the basis for the witty banter between the characters of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy in “Pride and Prejudice.” (Austen scholars have suggested that, at age 20, the writer may have had some sort of amorphous fling with Lefroy, an Irishman.)
The premise seems too precious but the cast is strong, including McAvoy (“The Last King of Scotland”), who always suggests a hint of danger behind his large, blue eyes, and James Cromwell and Julie Walters as Jane’s parents, who are at odds over her future. Maggie Smith, functioning as the snooty Lady Catherine figure, gets a few choice zingers. And Ian Richardson, in his last screen role, is perfectly imperious as Toms haughty, disapproving uncle.
But seeing such esteemed stars only makes you long for more from them, and for more from “Becoming Jane” itself. It certainly goes through the motions beautifully, evocatively — there’s just some oomph missing. Shot in Ireland to depict 1795 England, it features all the requisite lush forests for long, unchaperoned strolls, and everything is covered in an appropriate layer of country grime and mist. (Eigil Bryld provided the cinematography, with Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh designing the detailed period costumes.)
In this setting, we first meet Jane early in the morning, struggling to write, struggling to master the piano and, being young and self-absorbed, not caring whom she wakes up in the name of art. Her mother, in classic Austen-novel fashion, wishes she’d show more of an interest in marrying someone wealthy. Her father, a minister, only wants her to be happy. And her sister, Cassandra (the intriguing Anna Maxwell Martin) is busy preparing to get married herself.
Everyone agrees that, even though it would be rare for a woman of the time, Jane is a budding literary talent (though the scenes in which she reads her latest works aloud for friends and family are particularly awkward). That is, except for Tom, a friend of her brother’s who comes home to visit and isn’t immediately impressed.
Tom is a worldly law student, a product of the big city who also happens to be penniless, alas, and relies on the kindness of his uncle, a judge.
Of course, sparks fly between these two quick-witted, good-looking young people. There are the obligatory overheard conversations, stolen glances and verbal jousts on the ballroom dance floor. Pretty standard stuff by now, and Jarrold breathes no new life into it. Hathaway has a great vibrancy about her, though, and between this, “Brokeback Mountain” and “The Devil Wears Prada,” has absolutely grown into an actress of varied capabilities.
It’s all fun for about the first hour, then grows draggy with the back-and-forth over money and class and marriage suitability, particularly with Jane’s mother pushing her to say yes to a proposal from Mr. Wisley (Laurence Fox), the drab, shy nephew of Smith’s aristocratic Lady Gresham.
But trying to build any sort of will-she-or-won’t-she tension seems pointless, since, as we know, Jane Austen never married. And so “Becoming Jane” becomes a rather ordinary, though sporadically entertaining, game of dress-up.