Jane Austen wrote some of the greatest novels about romance in the English language and yet died a spinster at 41. The people who made "Becoming Jane" can't bear to think that her life was loveless, so they've concocted a love story for her based on a few ambiguously tantalizing references in a couple of Austen's letters. It's movie-making as match-making.
Jane, played by Anne Hathaway, is 20 when the film takes place. Independent-minded and already a budding writer, she bridles at the late 18th-century etiquette that requires well-to-do young ladies to be demure and marry for position rather than love. Into her life struts Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy), an Irish lawyer-in-training, also 20, who has temporarily decamped to Austen's environs from London.
Lefroy is all too obviously roguish. When he and Jane send off sparks at the local ball, we are clearly supposed to be thinking of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy from "Pride and Prejudice." Throughout "Becoming Jane," in fact, director Julian Jarrold and screenwriters Sarah Williams and Kevin Hood draw thematic parallels with not only "Pride and Prejudice" but "Emma," "Sense and Sensibility," and "Northanger Abbey."
This dramatic ploy has its pluses and minuses. If you know Austen's novels it's fun to pick out the references, but on a deeper level there's something dubious about using a writer's fiction as grist for autobiography. It devalues Austen's achievement by brazenly turning her life into "raw material." Imagine if someone made a movie biography of Shakespeare in love and – um – never mind. They already made that movie. (I didn't much care for that one, either.)
"Becoming Jane" has its felicities. The period atmosphere is fine and so are Julie Walters as Mrs. Austen and Maggie Smith as the imperious Lady Gresham. McAvoy and Hathaway work well together despite being saddled with dialogue that is not remotely in Austen's league. But then again, what is? Grade: B–
• Rated PG for brief nudity and mild language.