I’m not sure if Anglo/American cinema quite knows how to deal with writers who are women & who aren’t notably eccentric or extraordinarily different. Literary figures such as George Sand (the nom de plume of Amantine-Aurore-Lucile Dupin, Baroness Dudevant), played by the ageless and radiantly talented Judy Davis in the 1991 film Impromptu, might perhaps be meaty material a for a director to approach because of her mould-breaking flamboyance. Sand, in the 19th century, regularly dressed in mens’ attire in public, lived apart from her husband, traveled abroad & had affairs with the likes of Chopin & Liszt. The 2003 BBC doco/reenactment Frankenstein – The Birth of a Monster wonderfully chronicles the life Austen’s contemporary Mary Shelley, her confident & unconventional choices and her dramatic life with Percy Shelley, Lord Byron & their absorbingly interesting posse. But what to do with female writers who, however talented, are domestic, rooted in small circles, country life and family life, with occupations and pleasures and vexations to while away the time?
Of the recently released Austen biopic Becoming Jane I am wary of pending disappointment due to her very normality and quiet lifestyle, especially after the 2006 Miss Potter, a biopic (or faux biopic, rather (Fiopic!)) of children’s book writer and illustrator Beatrix Potter which I had at the time looked forward to for months. Potter, among other distinctions was a widely respected botanic illustrator, farmer, conservationist and expert mycologist but Miss Potter reduced her to a dithering wet blanket who made up little stories about bunny-wunnys and lived in an imaginary world. Frankly, I don’t have high hopes that Austen may fare any better in Becoming Jane, which I gather tows the line that Austen became a great writer because of a the trauma of a unfulfilled youthful romance, and not because of talent, intelligence, clarity, hard work & a maturity beyond her years.
The trailer for the film is not promising, simply placing Austen herself in the character of Elizabeth Bennet with the exact story line of Pride and Prejudice and tacking on the exact same music from the hugely successful ’95 Sense & Sensibility, I kid you not. I’m willing to hope however that the trailer pirates have yet again spliced a movie to make it look like something it’s not in order to get the masses into the cinema. According to said trailer pirates, the masses need a hell of a lot of prodding.
I’ve read several articles recently that express disappointment that a beautiful American woman, Anne Hathaway, was cast to portray an English writer who has always been considered by public opinion as somewhat plain and spinster like. This belief is based on the only portrait of Austen known as a certainty to be her, a drawing done by her sister Cassandra. Putting aside the possibility that Cassandra’s talents in portraiture may not be great, I have no issue with what Jane Austen might have looked like, or with Hathaway playing her. Frankly, Austen’s appearance will never matter to me, as her looks have nothing to do with her books. As for Hathaway’s American-ness, she is an actor and it’s her job to embody a character, no matter how different they are from her, ethnically or otherwise. Anne Hathaway’s marketing does seem to be a bit of a Disney job thus far, the “thinking-little-girl’s princess” as it were. Time will tell, I suppose.