The classy period chick flick isn’t a recent invention. Just look at Wuthering Heights (1939), in which Laurence Olivier’s elegant smolder threatened to set his own knitted eyebrows aflame. Yet there’s a special significance to the way that these movies came roaring back with A Room With a View (1986), a movement that crested in the Jane Austen fever of the ’90s — the Pride and Prejudice miniseries that launched a thousand Colin Firth sighs; the film adaptations of Emma and Sense and Sensibility and (the best of them) Persuasion; and Clueless and the Bridget Jones comedies, with their wised-up neo-Austen japery. In their way, these films, backlashing against the freedom and scruff of the counterculture, evoked our middle-class longing for a new traditionalism — for the lost trappings of chivalry, for virginity and lace, for the days when even rogues acted like gentlemen.
The single most zeitgeisty thing about them, however, may have been their obsession with money. In the art-house film according to Jane, romance, blessed though it is, is never quite enough — it must be accompanied by exquisite solvency. And you wondered why these tales were timely! In the winsome, heartfelt trifle Becoming Jane, the young Jane Austen (Anne Hathaway), a budding artist in a world where art by women isn’t taken seriously, finds herself trapped by the very romance that has set her free. She meets Tom LeFroy (James McAvoy), a rascally lawyer, banished to the countryside by his scolding benefactor of an uncle, and after the usual gavottes, impish-insult flirtations, and peering through the leaves at skinny dipping hunks scene, she falls for him. But Jane’s family, headed by her modest pastor father (James Cromwell), needs money — that is, they need her to marry the earnest, doltish nephew of Lady Gresham (Maggie Smith), a local aristocrat. And while Jane is shrewd enough not to go near that proposition, she can’t quite shake off the priority of money-as-security, even if it dooms her love. The scary thing is, she’s right.
The movie, it should be pointed out, is mostly a fabrication, spun out of an acquaintance the real Jane Austen, who never married, struck up with a young Irishman. Yet Becoming Jane has a burnished feminine sadness, and the director, Julian Jarrold, gives it a creamy-dark visual flow. Anne Hathaway, who got wrongfully overshadowed (at least by the critics) in The Devil Wears Prada, uses her big, ripe, sensual features — that giant strawberry of a mouth — to convey appetite tinged with a softly alluring reticence. When she reads Jane’s letters or fiction, Hathaway makes you feel her lust for words, for an eloquence that is engineered to bypass prejudice. McAvoy, so reticent himself in The Last King of Scotland, comes into better focus, cutting Tom’s nobility with a bit of 18th-century rock-star caddishness. In speculating how Jane Austen became the writer she was, the film views this man through her eyes and offers a not-bad thesis: To understand love is to confront the agony of losing it. B