For the cottage industry that's been built up around Jane Austen adaptations—and adaptations of other literary works made to look like Austen—the details of the author's life must be a profound disappointment. Though she imagined brighter destinies for her headstrong heroines, Austen herself rebuffed her one serious suitor, never married, and died a spinster at age 41. The biopic Becoming Jane works strenuously to turn Austen's story into, well, a second-rate Jane Austen novel—it recasts the dowdy novelist as a doe-eyed beauty played by Anne Hathaway, amplifies her flirtation with Tom LeFroy (the future Lord High Justice of Ireland) into a great lost love, and interprets her spinsterism as a show of uncompromising independence. In other words, it's the happiest possible interpretation of a life that many biographers would consider suffused with sadness. Neat trick, that.
In spite of the title, Becoming Jane isn't really about Austen's formative years, because she knows who she is from the start. One of two daughters and three sons raised by a humble pastor (James Cromwell) and his wife (Julie Walters), Austen dazzles her provincial relatives and neighbors with her pen, but tends to observe life from the sidelines. In typical romantic-comedy fashion, two potential mates present themselves—one a dullard with money, the other a catch with none. The dullard (Laurence Fox), nephew and close companion to a wealthy heiress (Maggie Smith), stands to inherit an enormous estate. The catch is LeFroy, a big-city lawyer-in-training who initially scoffs at Austen's backwoods roots, but comes to appreciate her passion and intellect.
After the invigorating cinematic brio of 2005's Pride And Prejudice, it's disheartening to see the Austen brand retreat back into Costume Drama 101, with all the trappings (stiff pageantry, dudes skinny-dipping in a lake, Maggie Smith) that implies. Hathaway acquits herself reasonably well under the circumstances, but her Austen has been conceived as a Disney heroine, a headstrong, frisky beauty who seems independent, but melts at a touch. It isn't a crime for Becoming Jane to take liberties with Austen's life story—after all, these characters did exist, and the relationships might have played out this way—but its motivations are transparently artless and mercenary. The film tries to squeeze Austen into one of her novels, and the peg doesn't fit.