Strange and Familiar

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After Julian Jarrold’s delightfully quirky Kinky Boots, his second feature is Becoming Jane, a period drama in which novelist Jane Austen has a romance—which may or may not have happened in real life—with an ambitious Irishman named Tom Lefroy. Quite a leap between genres.

“Everyone still questions me about Kinky Boots, but that film was actually a bit of a departure for me,” explains Jarrold. “When Kinky Boots was pitched to me—as Pedro Almodovar meets Ken Loach—I was very intrigued and loved the script. And I had great fun directing it. But, really, I’ve been directing period dramas for television for most of my career, and they really prepared me for Becoming Jane.

MERIN: The film’s a fictionalized projection of one period of Jane Austen’s life. Why do it, and how do you know you got it right?
JARROLD: The starting point was Jon Spence’s book, Becoming Jane Austen. His thing was to look at her novels and the characters in her life and find connections. I found what he wrote about Jane and Tom Lefroy very convincing. Another Austen biography raises that possibility as well, and suggests that the romance fed her novels.

The general perception about Jane has been that, although she wrote timeless romances, her own life was that of a middle-aged spinster obsessed with manners and propriety. That didn’t quite make sense. There must’ve been a time when she was young and having a romance, and we wondered what happened, really, and went from there.

How do you create a cinematic environment that’s in a time that predates ours, when the only thing we really know about that time is that the people who lived then didn’t know what we know now?
There’s a lovely quote from Henry James—about historical novels, I think—about how he likes to feel the past both strange and familiar. That’s the attraction of it. There’s interest in finding what’s authentic and real—but perhaps alien—aspects to their world, while wanting it to be familiar so we can understand it, as well. There’s that tension working within the environment—and that’s not just on a period drama. I’m sure if you set a film in space, that’s the same problem, really.

How do you find it? It’s just basic stuff: research and reading to get the facts right and the etiquette and the rest of it. Then there’s gut instinct in terms of how far to let actors go in terms of naturally making it accessible to us, but keeping within the temper of the period. When we focused on Jane, we tried to get all that authentic detail right. I mean, my designer was appalled that I shot some pine trees in the film because, she said, they’d arrived in England 15 years later, but I thought, perhaps this once [he laughs] I’ll break the rule. But one has to be a stickler for absolute precision in the sets, the costumes. And I think actors like that. They love going back into that period, as does the audience. As long as there are threads that allow you into that world—because it would otherwise be impossible to enter it. I mean, the language: There are so many arcane expressions.

Jane Austen films, even though they’re culled from novels, are always softened in terms of language. More complex expressions would be lost because, for film, people can’t handle it. There was some anxiety that American audiences wouldn’t understand the period’s colloquial expressions. But so far that doesn’t seem to have happened.

Anne Hathaway’s performance as Jane represents a huge leap forward for her. In real life, she’s remarkably self-composed and articulate. Was her own language skill one of the things that gave you confidence she could become Jane?
Yes, absolutely. And she’s interested in the past and that world. And she seems slightly different from other young American actresses who would’ve seemed completely alien in that part. I mean, it’s interesting that in Marie Antoinette, Kirsten Dunst is really playing a modern teenager who happens to be wearing period costumes. That was a deliberate choice, but it wouldn’t have worked in Becoming Jane.

Annie’s able to step into Jane’s world quite easily. And yet she also has this great energy, a vitality which is also so important for this part—because she’s able to overcome that spinsterish impression people have of Jane.

At times, this film about Jane’s fictitious romance feels like it’s one of her novels—several of which have recently been made into films. Is there a consistency of style in recent films made from Jane’s novels—like Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice—and yours? Did you measure what you were doing against what they had done?
No. In fact, I was trying to avoid being in their vein. I didn’t watch them beforehand. I’d seen Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility relatively recently and thought it a good production. Joe Wright’s was good as well. But they had a different way of going at it.

I suppose we were trying to make it as real as possible in terms of the type of house she would have lived in, which had a sense of the closeness of the space the characters are in, bumping up against each other. We tried to make that real and authentic and not glamorize or prettify it in any way.

It’s a balancing act, really, between the more romantic aspects of Jane’s love, in a way, and the film’s more serious social commentary about the pressure of the marriage market and all the rest of it. But, in a way, that’s what all the films do, and that’s what Jane’s books do. So, I guess there is a connection, and that would, I guess, be Jane.

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