Idiotic theories are very much in vogue in cinema these days, the utterly stupid 'King Arthur' being the piece de resistance, while unremarkable biopics have also been enjoying a renaissance. 'Becoming Jane' is a dull mixture of both these genres, being at the same time tediously un-dramatic and ridiculously speculative.
Set during Jane Austen's (Hathaway) early adulthood, it tells the story of her 'love affair' with the young Limerick man James Lefroy (McAvoy). Those of you familiar with the details of Ms Austen's life may not have heard of this relationship before. Don't worry: you haven't gone mad. In the words of co-producer Robert Bernstein; "There are documented facts and we've joined the dots in our own Austenesque landscape." They made it up.
There is always a scholar in the background in these sorts of films, no doubt telling the actors in that quietly desperate way of academics let loose on the real world that; 'actually, in fact, I think that Jane would have said it this way'. In 'Becoming Jane', the on set Ph.D was Jon Spence, author of 'Becoming Jane Austen'. Basically, despite a lack of any actual evidence, he proposes that Jane's brief encounter with James Lefroy was, artistically, the making of her. This theory may qualify as speculative but just about respectable in the academic sphere, in the hands of the silly film people it quickly becomes a would-be-amusing-if-it-weren't-so-irritating farce.
To quote Mr Bernstein again: "Anybody has to learn about love in order to write about it." Do they really? Deirdre Le Faye is the editor of Jane Austen's correspondence and her rather perfect reply is: "It's like saying Shakespeare murdered people to give him enough information to write 'Macbeth'. Poppycock."
That's not the only problem, though. Aside from being speculative, Spence's theory is also horribly un-cinematic when made into a narrative. Of course none of this would matter if the film were any good. It's not. In fact, it is exceedingly dull.
The 'drama', such as it is, is supplied by Jane's being trapped between the nice and rich Mr Wisley (Fox) and the rake-ish but unsuitable Lefroy. She is, apparently, in love with Lefroy but also under pressure to choose Wisley on account of his having a pile of money. But Hathaway and McAvoy fail to ever really convince us that anything is at stake. It's not all their fault by any means. Doing 'maybe a bit in love' is difficult enough at the best times and almost impossible with a bad script or a poorly wrought narrative such as we have here.
The secondary scenes are occasionally slightly better - Lefroy partakes in some meaty boxing matches, and there are some attempts at 'updating' Austen's world by showing a bit of filth and drinking but even these attempts at cliché busting are lacklustre. The low points are probably the excruciating scenes in which Hathaway speaks fluent 20th Century 'lit crit' of the embarrassing teenage variety.
While it is not an incompetently made film, it is poorly conceived. The overall effect is so underwhelming that it is impossible to recommend anyone to actually go and see it.