Newly minted young star Anne Hathaway stars as a twentysomething Jane Austen in Becoming Jane, and the real excitement of the film is not her actual performance -- which is basically perfunctory -- but the fact that at least one cast member is not a member of Britain's acting-in-semi-retirement community. It may seem as if Julie Walters and Maggie Smith, who both have supporting roles here, are far from retired; they collectively appear in about half of the Shakespeare and Austen-related films that are released every year (divided up evenly with Judi Dench and Helen Mirren), and they both have lucrative gigs in the Harry Potter series, as well as whatever nutty, life-loving oldie roles that come their way.
But that's just the problem: These actresses have to wait ages between actual roles, biding their time with supporting roles that might as well have them standing in a pasture. So in Becoming Jane we're treated to Smith doing her umpteenth haughty old bat and Walters overplaying another frazzled mum figure. If we're still supposed to find this shtick delightful, I suggest the British Film Board start scouring actual retirement homes for some fresh blood.
Alongside veteran scenery-chewers (Walters plays Jane's mother while Smith plays a more direct antagonist), Hathaway takes a more studied approach, sporting a crisp accent, teacher's-pet diction, and a vaguely humorless purity. She's not a bad actress, but her performance is too respectful by half, as if she must tread carefully when playing a mostly-fictionalized version of the author.
The whole film has more respect than brains or charm; it tells the at least partially fabricated story of Austen's first love, which may have inspired her work in, apparently, the most obvious and contrived ways possible. As young Jane is irritated by, and then smitten with, roguish suitor Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy), she learns more about the harsh realities of class lines, struggling for the opportunity to live on her own, marry for love if at all, and concentrate on her writing.
Of course, this is one of those movies about creative people that assumes that a vital ingredient in the creative process is literal transcriptions from the creator's own life. This wouldn't be a problem if the movie were a bit more playful, but it hits all of the expected notes without much urgency or invention, like a spiritless cover of Shakespeare in Love. The screenplay doesn't explore Austen's timeless themes so much as innumerate them; the film takes less from the depth of Austen's work and more from the familiar rhythms of its countless imitations. It only achieves some dramatic tension when, towards the end, the focus shifts to the messier deviations in Austen's (fictionalized) real life.
Hathaway and McAvoy are easy on the eyes and Becoming Jane is, admittedly, an attractive film to match its appealing leads. Director Julian Jarrold previously made the forgettable Brit-com Kinky Boots with similar smooth professionalism. But absent consistent sparks from the writing or performances, his shot choices -- handheld bits, wide shots of gorgeous scenery, expressive close-ups -- start to feel mechanical. His film is pleasant, inoffensive, and a little depressing to watch -- in other words, the cinematic equivalent of a nice retirement facility.
I'd kill for a gin and tonic.