Saturday, August 11, 2007

Becoming Jane-athon Installment #2: Jane Sexes It Up*

Guest post by Conseula Francis and Alison Piepmeier

Conseula Francis blogs at Afrogeek Mom and Dad. In her real life she’s an English professor with a James Baldwin fetish.

Alison Piepmeier blogs at Baxter Sez. She read Pride and Prejudice once…a long time ago…and has very lowbrow taste in movies.

This film is an homage to birth control.

No, really—one of the subtexts that Conseula and I both noticed was the fact that, as a woman, your life is much more difficult if, as Jane Austen’s sister puts it, you’re having “a child every year. How will you write?”

How, indeed.

The homage to birth control is especially poignant because this film is—at least in its first half—unbelievably sexually fraught. And hot. It’s a shame that Conseula and I are both married to other people, because otherwise, we both would have gotten lucky after seeing this film. Whew.

Alison, as usual, is incredibly inappropriate. But she is right. “Becoming Jane” is ultimately about passion—passion for work, passion for life, passion for other people. And it is also about the sacrifices and responsibilities that often make a living a passionate life impossible.

Although Conseula would like to take us into a more appropriate train of thought, I’m taking us back to the sex. This film did a great job of letting the audience experience the sexual tension in very subtle interactions—the unexpected meeting at a ball, a conversation ostensibly about literature in a private library. In fact, Jane and Tom’s first kiss, and what Conseula calls their “sneaky hand touches” are far sexier than many explicit scenes I’ve seen in other, less carefully controlled films.

And when Tom and Henry (Jane’s brother) take off their clothes to go swimming in the river after a very flirtatious cricket game, the audience gasped in delight.

Oh, and let me not forget to mention one of the sneaky—but not so subtle—sexy touches in the film happens in the first three minutes, when the Rev. Austen slides under the covers to go down on Mrs. Austen. I love that James Cromwell.

In addition to being incredibly sexy, though (and it was sexy—the actors portraying both Tom and Henry are nothing short of eye candy), the cricket scene also reveals one of the film’s primary themes: the restraints of propriety on 19th century women. As Tom and Henry race from the cricket field to the river, Jane and Countess Eliza (Jane’s cousin) are racing after them, just as alive, just as turned on by the freedom of it all.

But then the boys strip, propriety (as well as other things) rears its head, and Jane and the Countess head back to join the others. The audience is reminded that their freedom is severely constrained, particularly if they hope to marry well.

One thing this film does very well is convey the sense, the experience, of those constraints. I could feel myself as a modern audience member searching for the loopholes, the ways that Jane could get out of those constraints and make exactly the life she wants for herself, find ideological and professional (and sexual) gratification. The film knew that I was looking for the loopholes and showed me exactly how they were all closed off for Jane—and, to a lesser extent, for Tom, as well.

It’s difficult to say more about the film without spoiling readers. Though we go into it knowing how the story ends, the journey is, nonetheless, worth it. Instead, I’ll talk about the people in the theater tonight.

We saw “Becoming Jane” at our local “art house” theater and the crowd was typical for such a venue. Well dressed patrons ordering pinot grigio to go with their popcorn. The audience was made up primarily of groups of women, seemingly bonded by their love of Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice (if the little squeals of delight that erupted every time an allusion to that novel was made is any indication). They were also a few dour looking men attendance, but they didn’t say much.

Also, Conseula was the one black person in attendance. Which leads to this important sociological query: why do black people hate Jane Austen?

Given the fact that I actually went, willingly, to this movie and own the A&E production of Pride and Prejudice (Mr. Darcy!), I think we can’t make the sweeping statement that black people don’t like Jane Austen. Maybe they just don’t like pinot grigio with their popcorn.

*With all due respect to Lisa Johnson, whose book of this title is not about Jane Austen.


Deborah Siegel said...

Hi All,
I'm posting this additional review that came in slightly later from Tiby Kantrowitz! -DS

Here's Tiby:

I really wanted to like this movie. As a fan of Jane Austen and independent-minded women in general, any movie that speculates on the history of a female writer appeals. And, during the hot summer, the invitation of a period film to decamp to a green and somewhat chilly England (actually shot in Ireland) is especially attractive. And, why not, Anne Hathaway makes a lovely Jane. Her face echoes a Gainsborough portrait you might find in the Frick Museum, and James McEvoy as Tom LeFroy is suitably impetuous, passionate and easy on the eyes. Dame Maggie Smith plays the stern Lady Gresham, and Sir Ian Richardson, in his last role, takes on the role of Tom's uncle, a disapproving judge. Factor in James Cromwell and Julie Walters as Jane's parents and Anna Maxwell Martin as her sister and Laurence Fox as Mr. Wisley, her unlucky suitor, all of whom give great performances in limited roles, and what's not to like?

The answer is, well, a lot. While there's a lot to like about it, such as beautiful locations, fine attention to color, great costuming, some fine acting and chemistry between the romantic leads, the filmmakers make choices in characterization, story, and presentation that simply seem to miss the point. Essentially, the film culls scenes from her various books and strings them together into a narrative as if to suggest she used her own life as the basis for her writings. Readers familiar with Austen's work may find the in-joke entertaining, playing "Match" between individual scenes in the movie and similar scenes in her book, but others are just as likely to watch the film and scratch their heads.

For all the period-appropriate language and costuming, Jane's actions reflect those of a modern young woman rather than one of her time. She does as she likes, when she likes, whether it be practicing piano, writing, tending to her chores, initiating a kiss, or speaking her mind. In the background lurk such dreary subjects as, you know, poverty, but despite a scary tirade from her mother about what happens to old maids, no one seems all that worried. Even with few options for a young women of her station outside of marriage, the film portrays Jane as being remarkably unconcerned about her future. That her destiny lay in her pen seems clear from the beginning, and while she's shown as being self-critical as a writer, she is nothing if not confident her skills as a novelist will support her. I was more worried than she was. It's not like she could get a part-time job as a dog-walker or a barista while waiting to make the London Times Best-Seller List and like her mother, I wondered what kind of fall-back plan she had in mind.

At that time, few women of her station entered the professions, and female novelists especially received little respect. So where did the confidence come from? While a role model eventually appears in the form of Gothic author, Mrs. Radcliffe, she's portrayed as being so foggy and disengaged it's hard to imagine Jane seeking to emulate her.

It was just as hard to imagine Jane Austen, analyzer of social niceties, in one pivotal scene carelessly alienating someone with the means to control her happiness simply to make a point. Anyone with a lick of sense would have realized that she needed most of all was to keep her mouth closed.

Another scene, while fun to watch, shows Jane jumping into the middle of a cricket game, and displaying an all-too-unlikely tomboyish athletic side. While we want to imagine Jane striking out and expressing herself physically as well as intellectually, this humors our modern expectations and does both the historical and cinematic Jane a disservice. The first women's cricket club was formed in 1887 by eight noblewomen in Yorkshire, and a second, professional club was started several years later. However, like Jane and Mrs. Radcliffe, who both published their work anonymously, the women played under pseudonyms. However much we want Jane to be daring and adventurous, such activity was, to say the least, eyebrow-raising, and likely to cast "suspicion," in the dark words of Lady Gresham, upon a woman. Surely the writers could have depicted some of the real obstacles Jane surely had to overcome and trusted that we'd find them interesting.

Then too, this is a period film. So what's with the hand-held camera? "Locking down" the camera focuses attention not only on the action, but also the scenery inside the frame. The viewer relaxes and is transported elsewhere. "Becoming Jane" is all about restraint, obligations, and limitations. The more you focus on the small stuff like facial expressions, dialogue and subtle gesture, the more you'll get pulled into, hello, another period. But if while you're concentrating on the shift in someone's facial expression the camera is bouncing all over the place it reminds you you're not in Ireland masquerading as Hampshire County, England after all, you're sitting in the cineplex eating popcorn trying to watch a movie about people who are defined mostly by their constraints. A jumpy camera rather misses the point.

While Jane Austen fans know she remained unmarried, the screenwriters have rewritten history enough so that perhaps they could have also included room for Mr. Wisley. While Mr. LeFroy is shown alternately mocking her writing and guiding her reading as a means of flirting with her, I suspect Mr. Wisley would have taken real delight in her incisive critique of the society in which they both lived. While labeled a "boobie", Lady Gresham's eligible and favored nephew, most especially as portrayed by Laurence Fox, seems not to lack sensitivity or feelings, but the experience in expressing them (or in anything else). Jane's general disdain for him reveals a condescending attitude for which a typical Austen heroine would eventually be punished, but which she gets away with in the film.

In the absence of a role model, financial means or non-familial approval, somehow Jane managed to produce six great novels of the English language before her death at a young age. As the film ended, I still wondered where she got the idea to resist her culture even in this quiet literary way. Who were her cheerleaders and how did she do it? So since we're rewriting history, I bet Mr. Wisley would have relished supporting Jane and her work if only to poke gently at his rigid aunt, provide himself with an opportunity to assert his own independence and perhaps advance his own cause. There's nothing like someone believing in you to inspire the kind of warm feelings that can lead to romance. The needs of the storyline and faithfulness to actual events might preclude it, but it's a lot more cheeky and fun, than the sappy and equally fictitious reunion scene at the conclusion.

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