With her big brown eyes and lovely pale skin, Anne Hathaway has a slightly cartoonish look about her, like a spunky princess come to life, which is probably why she found success in Disney’s Princess Diaries series. In the leading roles that have followed, her determination to shake off the tiara and play grown-up borders on teacher’s-pet overachievement.
As a young Jane Austen in Becoming Jane, for example, her English inflection sounds so studied that she seems, if not less than human, certainly not much fun; there is something pure and humorless about her. It’s a respectful turn — one that assumes her character is interesting because she’s Jane Austen, rather than daring to think that Jane Austen might be made interesting by her performance.
The whole film is respectful to a fault, including appearances by English acting royalty Julie Walters and Maggie Smith — or was it Judi Dench and Helen Mirren? These actresses have played so many versions of Shakespeare and Austen that they must be as bored with these matriarchal roles as we are; no wonder half of Britain has agreed to two-minute Harry Potter cameos.
Literary allusions abound in Becoming Jane, but the script is equally eager to echo the oversimplified romanticism inspired by the author; it plays like a touring company of Shakespeare in Love, more compilation of tropes (class lines, matchmaking, romances that begin with animosity) than culmination of Austen’s ideas. Director Julian Jarrold places and moves his camera with smooth polish but the material makes his shot choices (handheld bits, close-ups, gorgeous scenery) feel mechanical. Like Hathaway, he displays proficiency but little invention.