How many authors could claim, or would even dare suppose, that they had single-handedly, through the power of their pen alone, influenced the development of an entire sex? Well, there was that guy what writ The Good Book…and there was Jane Austen. In her short forty-one years on Earth, from a modest dwelling in Merrie Olde, her tales of Love, Romance, and social decorum, written with wry humor and affection, arguably did more to shape what we refer to as ‘The Modern Woman’ than any subsequent cause or movement. She, and the characters she created, are now part of the world’s culture, and her fans are legion. Hollywood has attempted putting her books onscreen since the early 1930’s, with varying degrees of success. The challenge with filming classic literature has always been satisfying audiences made up of the book’s admirers, who have been augmenting the story in their imagination for years, and are used to the more leisurely pacing of a novel.
Recently, two of our hottest young actresses, from opposite sides of The Puddle, have starred in recreations from Jane Austen’s life and work. In 2005 England’s own Keira Knightley played Austen’s most beloved heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, in fledgling director Joe Wright’s “Pride and Prejudice,” a visual and intellectual delight that earned Wright many ‘Best Newcomer’ awards in his profession, and solidified Knightley as an actress of depth and character. Now Brooklyn-born beauty Anne Hathaway is starring as Austen herself in Julian Jarrold’s “Becoming Jane,” a film that, loosely based on segments from Jane Austen’s personal letters, supposes that the inspiration for her wonderful novels stemmed from a romance she might have had before she began her writing career. “Jane” is also a handsome production, but which film is truest to the period, and the tone of the novels? Which flick would Jane Austen and her sanguine, giggling sisters attend if they were alive today, and in the mood for a divertissement?
Jane Austen has, over generations, become such an iconic figure that only a young woman who has built a career on playing royalty could be entrusted with the task of portraying her on screen, and lovely Anne Hathaway (“The Princess Diaries”)(“Ella Enchanted”) neatly fills the bill. Even though her accent sometimes falters, Hathaway’s take on Jane does not. She is mildly impetuous, lightly flirtatious, and warm hearted, devoted to family and friends, fun loving, and possessing a degree of integrity that jibes perfectly with the novels she would later write. Her only fault in characterization lies in her beauty; she is just too ravishing to behold, compared to the ‘normal’ physical gifts of the real Austen, who was attractive, but no stunner.
Screenwriters Kevin Hood and Sarah Williams choose not to explore Miss Austen’s origins, or early childhood. Their story begins with Jane as a young woman of late 1700’s England, just beginning to develop her literary gift, and set upon by an anxious mother, (Julie Walters), eager for her to be wed, and smiled upon by an understanding clerical father, (James Cromwell), who just wants her happiness. Jane does not want for suitors, but remains more interested in writing than in matters of the heart, until the appearance of a charming young Irishman, (James McAvoy), turns her world on end. The film offers up the conceit that he is the catalyst Austen needed to propel her towards greatness in literature, which may not sit well with the Austen Faithful. I’m not one of them, but I squirmed a little, even so.
As in the Jane Austen novels, the costar of the film is the Manners on which polite society was governed in that particular period of time, a set of social rules and restrictions that Austen, and the film, recreate with good-natured humor, poking fun at their antiquity, but at the same time nostalgic for their basis in kindness, and respect for one another’s feelings. Ah, if only those boundaries of politeness and restraint were alive today, Reality TV and the sensibilities that spawned it would be deader than the Elizabethan Age, itself.
Where “Becoming Jane” runs into trouble is twofold: On the one hand, Jane Austen’s life is not all that compelling, in the telling. Like all authors except for Hunter Thompson, the fictional worlds created by literary geniuses far outdistance the somewhat eventless lives they themselves led. Anyone talented enough to become a world-famous teller of stories just spends too much time at a desk to be exciting. On the other hand, those romantic escapade episodes in the film that do speak a life less ordinary, are so obviously based on rumors, that they distract from the believability of the movie, overall.
“Pride and Prejudice” has been filmed several times before, most notably an impressive 1940 version that starred Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier as Austen’s Miss Bennet and Mr. Darcy. In this latest version, screenwriter Deborah Moggach, who generously shares title credits with Jane Austen, herself, has subtly shifted the emphasis from being placed solely on the teasings of Elizabeth Bennet’s heart strings, and wisely made the film a family affair. The rest of the Bennet family are not just extras fleshing out the scenery. They are a vibrant, vital element in the film, and are individually, every bit as interesting as the heroine. As Austen’s story unfolds, lizzie Bennet (Knightley) and her four sisters are coming of age on a farm in late 1700’s England, under the care of an easygoing father, wisely under-played by Donald Sutherland, and a matrimonial-mad mother, brilliantly portrayed by the peerless Brenda Blethyn. But the problem is, two of the sisters, Lizzie and her elder sibling Jane, are past coming of age and are in imminent danger of that most foul state, spinsterhood. The Bennets are by no means wealthy, and in an age where dowries were considered just as important as the marriage vows, themselves, the prospects of marrying any of the girls to a ‘suitable man’ are slim. So, when a moneyed young man, Mr. Bingley, (Simon Woods) meets, and takes an immediate interest in gorgeous, demure Jane Bennet, (Rosamund Pike), much to the delight of the female family members, they hardly notice the sparks that fly between Lizzie and Mr. Bingley’s friend, the equally rich, but dour, brooding Mr. Darcy (Matthew MacFadyen).
At the same time, Lizzie chances to meet a handsome, dashing soldier, who seems to her more of a kindred spirit; and an obsequious distant cousin, a cleric, whose sole aim is finding himself a wife to satisfy his patroness’ job requirements, and has decided, cold-bloodedly, that Lizzie should be grateful enough to comply, oblivious of her intellect and free spirit. From old maid to object of desire in a few days, oh, what’s an emotional young woman to do? Especially when her own love life is confounded by those of two of her sisters? Jane’s path toward nuptials with the besotted Mr. Bingley is anything but rosy, and their younger sister Lydia (Jena Malone), a pretty, giddy, brainless little creature, threatens to bring down the whole Bennet clan in scandal and disgrace.
There is a lot to be said for a look into an era where there were no cell phones, Ipods, “The Bachelor,” or gasoline wars, where people addressed each other as Mister and Missus, where sarcasm was rare, and frowned on, and an ‘urgent message’ took about two days to be delivered. Both these films allow us to luxuriate, albeit briefly, in a gorgeous English countryside, where people entertained each other with readings, dances, singing and music, and, more often than not, treated each other to small, personal kindnesses, and large anonymous ones. What both “Becoming Jane” and “Pride and Prejudice” tell us, is that people were no better in that bygone age than they are now, but, and this makes all the difference in the world, literally, they were forced to behave as if they were. And the result of operating within these parameters, although there was a certain amount of freedom lost, was a society ‘nicer’, and more focused on matters of true importance, than our own, modern one.
Since Elizabeth Bennet was Jane Austen’s loving creation, they share many similarities in intelligence, passion, temperament, and so on, but it is Keira Knightley who is able to bring all the shades and nuances of her character to the screen, although Anne Hathaway is quite competent as Jane Austen. It’s just that in many scenes she seems to be posing for a 1798 portrait artist, rather than giving the performance of a lifetime, as Keira Knightley does. Maybe it is that Knightley feels more for her fellow English countrywoman, or it may just be the astonishing direction of young Wright that is responsible. I’m inclined to believe the latter, as Matthew MacFadyen’s Mr. Darcy is also a figure more sympathetic, more compelling, and infinitely more romantic than McAvoy’s Mr. Lefroy. Even though Mr. Darcy is disagreeable, churlish and opinionated, it is much more believable that Lizzie should feel an attraction to him, and his strength of character, than Jane Austen’s supposed infatuation with Mr. Lefroy, who is little more than a rake, granted, a well-meaning one.
The tones of the two films are completely different. “Becoming Jane,” although it begins sprightly enough, gradually lets you know, as the going goes from playful to somber, that you are not viewing a romantic comedy, but a serious, pivotal portion of a young woman’s life. “Becoming Jane” asserts very pointedly that real people may not always find their heart’s desire, and, if they do, may not be lucky enough to procure it. “Pride and Prejudice,” on the other hand, is a joyous celebration from beginning to end. Wright and company offer up the sheer exuberance of being alive and in or out of love in Any era. Regardless of whatever social mores may be in place at the time of your passage through life, they seem to be saying, Love is what really matters, and, if genuine, will always find its way. This may be an immature, overly romantic notion, given harsh reality,but it is in keeping with Miss Austen’s books, and her personal worldview. So, which of these sumptuous films is preferable, the one that shows romance as it really can be, or the other, which offers a glimpse of how it should be? Which would you find Miss Austen and siblings attending on a Saturday afternoon?
“Becoming Jane” attempts to show what forces may drive an artist to create, and on that level, it succeeds. But the supposition on which it is based, that of Jane Austen’s unrequited love, is never convincing enough on screen, and so does not seem as ‘real’ as the unabashedly fictional world of “Pride and Prejudice.” “Becoming Jane” is good looking, well paced, and has many fine moments, including a droll cricket match, and is entertaining enough, on its own.
There are very few films that I consider ‘perfect’, that in the old days of awarding movies one to four stars, would be a ‘four-star attraction.’ I’m tough on movies, particularly ones made from classic literature, which, along with Adventure films, is my favorite genre. “To Kill a Mockinbird,” “The Yearling,” “The Searchers,” “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” “Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” “Mystic River,” and not too darn many others, fulfill what I consider to be all the requirements of a perfect film. And now, so does Joe Wright’s “Pride and Prejudice,” the winner of the Jane Austen Smackdown. I’ve viewed it four times thus far, and each time I’m left breathless with the beauty and power of his creation. I fell in love with Keira Knightley back in “Bend it Like Beckham” days, and fell for her all over again, as the perfect embodiment of Elizabeth Bennet. Then I fell in love with Rosamund Pike’s Jane; her amazing good looks, mixed with a serene, loving presence, a forgiving intelligence, and guileless charm left me weak. I fell in love with the entire Family Bennet, and their rural home, and wished I could lose myself in that world, forever. Special kudos go to Production Designer Sarah Greenwood, and Cinematographer Roman Osin. Every…single…scene is so carefully crafted, so beautifully realized, so full of warm detail, that they, and Wright, seem to be working in another medium altogether, than that of film. In particular, the two balls attended by the Bennets in “Pride and Prejudice” are so exquisitely concocted, so mesmerizingly lovely, they earn a special place in my own ‘Best scenes of all time’ list. And England herself has never looked better. Osin’s exterior shots are a feast for the eyes, and make you wonder if places like this can really exist in 2005. Or did he hop in the Wayback Machine? Yes, this is the film that would delight Jane Austen, have her alternately in laughter and tears, but most of the time, in joyous, splendid Love.