All this is a problem, believe it or not. You see, she’s portraying Jane Austen, and while the historical record is inconclusive as to how attractive Austen was, the fact is that the author never married and received few proposals, which consigned her to a life of genteel poverty. We’re supposed to take the Jane in this movie as someone who’s hard up for a marriage proposal from a well-to-do bachelor. Her father, the Rev. Philip Austen (James Cromwell), tells her early on that the offer just made by a clumsy young dullard is the best one she’s likely to get. How are we to believe that, when Anne Hathaway is so freakin’ gorgeous that you want to melt down the celluloid in the film and inject it into your veins so that you can get high on her beauty? That sticking point is unfortunately the only point of interest in this pretty yet insomnia-curing film that invents a grand romantic episode for Jane in the 1790s, when she’s not yet a famous author, only a country girl who’s just beginning to take an interest in writing. Her partner in this adventure is Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy), an arrogant and dissipated law student who’s financially dependent on his mean, rich uncle (the late Ian Richardson) but still challenges her to express herself. In real life, Austen and Lefroy were casual acquaintances, and she made some vague references to him in a few of her letters. From this, the filmmakers have extrapolated their fictitious romance.
Why otherwise lucid artists and literati through the centuries have felt the need to imagine the author of Pride and Prejudice falling in love is a question I’ll leave to others. As far as this movie goes, screenwriters Kevin Hood and Sarah Williams don’t have anything like Austen’s wit, and director Julian Jarrold (best known for last year’s cross-dressing comedy Kinky Boots) turns this movie into mush. The right chemistry between the lead actors might have salvaged this thing, and you can see why people think of McAvoy as the next big thing. The Scots have a reputation for dourness, and yet the Scottish leading actors (Sean Connery, Ewan McGregor) are well-established as guys who know how to have fun. McAvoy has the same sort of mischievous spark in his eye as those guys, as well as being pretty. His leading lady unfortunately comes up short. Whether it’s the period setting, the English accent, portraying a real-life historical personage, or some combination of the three, Hathaway’s natural bubbliness is much less in evidence. She probably should have switched roles with Anna Maxwell Martin, who portrays Jane’s sister Cassandra. This young British actress is brilliant (BBC’s production of Bleak House) and has an unprepossessing face. She might have brought some Jane Austen-like astringency and unruly energy to a movie that’s sorely lacking both.
Starring Anne Hathaway and James McAvoy. Directed by Julian Jarrold. Written by Kevin Hood and Sarah Williams. Rated PG.