Monday, 18 June 2007

Plain Jane: Is "Becoming" an Excuse to Morph Austen Into a Pretty Romantic Lead?


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 and family life, busy, healthy & happy?

Though interested in 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’m familiar with the events the film is based on and with Jane Austen’s letters, and since I’ve found out that the very real and fascinating characters of Eliza de Feuillide and Ann Radcliffe are portrayed along with the protagonists, I’m still curious enough to want to see it upon its release here in Vancouver.

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 does seem to be a bit of a Disney product thus far, the “thinking-little-girl’s princess” as it were but I’m prepared to hope for a deeper performance here than she has yet had an opportunity to give.

On a related note, I am saddened and angered that in this modern, more feminist world Helen Trayler, managing director of publisher Wordsworth Editions, has had hair extensions and make up put on to Austen’s portrait on a book cover. "She was not much of a looker” and “If you look more attractive, you just stand out more” according to Trayler. Heaven forbid the day when the merits of us all are judged solely by Helen Trayler’s standards. Whilst Anne Hathaway is embodying Austen as an artist, Trayler is actively distorting her real portrait to sell more books. The Cassandra portrait in question hangs in the National Gallery and though highly disrespectful to artist and subject as it is, the portrait is in the public domain and the distortion of it is not illegal, however unethical.


jessi said...

I love your blog - I recently discovered it through Austen Blog. I'm looking forward to the film - I enjoy anything to do with Jane Austen. And although Anne Hathaway was typecast as a "little princess" for a while, I think she managed to prove her acting skills with Brokeback Mountain. I'm excited to see what she does with the role. I read an interview with her last year in which she talked about re-reading several Austen novels, along with collections of her letters. Hopefully, she'll do Jane justice. I still haven't seen the trailer, though, so now I'm off to hunt that down...

Hasenauer said...

Hi Jessi - I haven't seen Brokeback yet (plan to though). Thanks for the tip