This is probably less a review and more of an editorial. Read Heather L.’s review on her personal blog, because it pretty much says what we would have. –Ed.
“You have drawn two pretty pictures; but I think there may be a third — a something between the do-nothing and the do-all.” – Emma, Vol. I, Ch. 1
Okay, okay, we know there’s not a whole lot to go on when it comes to Jane Austen biography. The perfidious Cassandra Austen burnt all her sister’s letters (no doubt full of breathless descriptions of love affairs and complaints about having to feed the pigs when she really wanted to be wandering aimlessly through the woods caressing trees and writing angsty melodrama) and the uptight Victorian relatives were better at dodgy past-laundering than Paris Hilton’s publicist, so what scarce material exists must be plumped out with speculation. In most biographies of Jane Austen, such speculation varies in adherence to the real story, some biographers venturing further afield than others. Those who do take greater liberties generally do so in the name of scholarship, so even if one disagrees with that biographer’s conclusions, one can, however grudgingly, accept the process.
We have been loud in our criticism of the premise of the film, once we understood what it was to be. We have heard from various parties, “But at least it will introduce Jane Austen’s work to new readers,” and have learned from anecdotal evidence that this is indeed the case–and that’s a very good thing. However, we suspect that some who enjoyed the film will read the novels with an eye to “proving” the assertions of the film, or just go for the pretty people and costumes and never bother to pick up the novels, and the Internet-fandom types will go on to make music videos and icons with loopy fonts and write execrable fan fiction about it (Dorothy’s running a pool on how fast the Tom/Henry slash shows up on the Internets), and generally perpetuate the stereotype that Jane Austen wrote sweet little romantic stories and oh, wasn’t it tragic that she never had a man of her own? It doesn’t help the situation when the producers refer to the star as an “Austen expert” and said star engages in ill-informed speculation herself; nor when another star talks about Jane Austen burning letters from Tom Lefroy–letters which likely never existed. A major Hollywood film can do a great deal more to perpetuate stereotypes than the best scholarship in the world can undo, simply by force of the relative sizes of the audiences they will reach.
Contrary to the popular belief, we absolutely love the idea of a biopic of Jane Austen. We understand that any such film would require a certain amount of speculation; indeed, a Made Up Story. Our objections to the Made Up Storyness of this film are twofold: one, that there originally seemed to be an attempt to deny the Made Upness of the story; and two, that the Made Up Story was, not to put too fine a point on it, not very good. We have no doubt that there is an audience for it, one that will enjoy it immensely, but even they (if they are familiar with Jane Austen’s work) would be hard put to declare it comparatively as good as Jane Austen’s novels, despite the well-meaning attempt to shoehorn in as many of Jane’s own plots as possible. There is none of the humor of her work, very little wit, and no cleverness to speak of. Jane Austen, who created Marianne Dashwood with empathy and keen insight and saw her through heartbreak into emotional maturity, likely would not behave so much like her creation. Jane had her generation’s extremely nice sense of duty, and would never have encouraged the man she loved to defy his own sense of duty, nor engage in emotional blackmail with her beloved and recently bereaved sister to justify it. Nor, one hopes, would she be pining for what was the equivalent of the guy she went steady with for a month in high school when she was approaching middle age. Jane Austen was a genius, without a doubt, but to place such genius in juxtaposition with the thoughtless, selfish immaturity of the heroine of Becoming Jane cheapens that genius by making it appear accidental.
Unfortunately, this is how Hollywood and the media see Jane Austen’s work. Even more unfortunately, this is how a lot of so-called Jane Austen fans see Jane Austen’s work. Some of the most popular fan fiction (including some published works) are melodrama-driven, a plot device that Jane employed sparingly, and when she did, lightened it with humor. When Patricia Rozema’s film adaptation of Mansfield Park came out, at first we were as appalled as anyone, but then realized that it made us appreciate Mansfield Park as Jane Austen wrote it. No more did we wish Jane had made Fanny more spirited, or more amenable to Henry Crawford’s romantic overtures. We realized that Jane knew best, and learned to appreciate and love the novel as it is. Call it our Janeite “St. Paul on the Road to Damascus-type Blinding Flash” moment, in a nod to Bridget Jones. That is why we are so fierce in our protectiveness of Jane Austen’s work: Because we think Jane Austen deserves the respect to have her work stand as she wrote it, without overly creative interpretation, modernization, or improvement, including in film adaptations.
Being only a rank-and-file Janeite with a blog, there is nothing we can do to prevent Hollywood, biographers, and paraliterature authors taking what liberties they will. Those of us who are disturbed or revolted or annoyed or bored by the film can only sigh at another wasted opportunity and encourage the shiny-faced newbies to get the real story. After all, it’s only a movie.
Okay, that was way too serious. This needs an injection of snark.
The “epilogue” scene defied about thirty laws of physics as it tore a great black hole in the time/space/logic continuum. Judging from a comment Anne Hathaway made a long time ago (but we Middle-Aged Austen Whores, not to be confused with Wine Whores, have long memories when it comes to Jane), Jane was meant to be suffering from her fatal illness in this scene (which probably was not cancer, by the bye), so we can assume it’s some time around 1816 or so, when she first fell ill. Eliza Austen died of breast cancer in 1813, a few months after the release of Pride and Prejudice, which the little fangirl was gushing over, yet she looks a darn sight better than Jane, who is 14 years her junior. And though the future Queen Victoria was not yet even a gleam in her papa’s eye, the Victorian Hairdo Fairies have clearly visited the cast with their baroque combs and brushes, including a really spectacular set of whiskers on Henry Austen, who looks like he just got back from the Crimea. And speaking of Henry, the one real laugh-out-loud moment we had in the film was Henry “Did I Mention My Sister Wrote Pride and Prejudice” Austen officiously shooing away the fangirl! We would think it a really spectacular inside joke if anything else in the scene made any sense whatsoever.
*whew* Ah, the cleansing properties of good snark.