Anne Hathaway is a nice Catholic girl from Brooklyn, not an austere English beauty, and Becoming Jane is a careful travestying of Pride and Prejudice, not an accurate biopic.
Director Julian Jarrold cut his demure period drama from the same cloth, possibly with the same pair of scissors, as 2005's big-screen adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and 1996's Emma. The film's conceit, which it disguises as fact, is that Jane Austen could have culled her books from the events of her life. I walked away ashamed that I knew so little about Austen, and resolved to find out more.
Let the record show the pedant triumphant: I did not know about these events because they did not, in fact, happen. She did not plan to elope with a young Bingleyish man named Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy); she did not have a suitor who lived under the thumb of his evil dowager mother; and she did not use a fountain pen.
The best parts of the movie come when Jane and Tom are off in the woods together and there is some chemistry allowed between the two actors. Hathaway plays Jane with authority, but she has a flirtatious quality that she can't quite manage to tamp into Regency-era bossiness or boring good sense. She seems genuinely charmed by McAvoy, who was only a journeyman seducer when we saw him as Tumnus the faun in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
One of the joys of period drama, at least if it's Victorian or earlier, is that the unmarried characters usually don't have sex, forcing all the welcome excruciations of forbidden love on the actors and the audience. Will Jane and Tom see one another again? Will they be alone? Will it be for long?
The story's resolution makes me want to do nothing so much as recommend other movies (Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility, Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence), but the two leads save the film from becoming a chore to watch. The rating is a mild PG (there are two scenes of Tom bare-knuckle boxing, and we see Jane's parents in bed briefly), but there's nothing really offensive here.