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, is director Julian Jarrolds second feature film. His first was the decidedly modern, delightfully quirky Kinky Boots.
How did Jarrold swing from one genre to the other?
Everyone still questions me about Kinky Boots, but that film was actually a bit of a departure for me, says 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, Ive been directing period dramas for television for most of my career. And, they really prepared me for Becoming Jane.
MERIN: The films a fictionalized projection of one period of Jane Austens life. Why do it, and how do you know you got it right?
JARROLD: The starting point was Jon Spences 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 didnt quite make sense. There mustve been a time when she was young and having a romance– and we wondered what happened, really. And went from there.
MERIN: How do you create a cinematic environment thats in a time that predates ours, when the only thing we really know about that time is that the people who lived then didnt know what we know now?
JARROLD: Theres a lovely quote from Henry James– about historical novels, I think– about how he likes to feel the past both strange and familiar. Thats the attraction of it. Theres interest in finding whats authentic and real– but perhaps alien– aspects to their world, while wanting it to be familiar so we can understand it, as well. Theres that tension working within the environment– and thats not just on a period drama. Im sure if you set a film in space, thats the same problem, really.
How do you find it? Its just basic stuff: research and reading to get the facts right, and the etiquette, and the rest of it. Then theres 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, theyd arrived in England fifteen years later. But I thought perhaps this once (he laughs) Ill 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 theyre culled from novels, are always softened in terms of language. More complex expressions would be lost because, for film, people cant handle it.
There was some anxiety that American audiences wouldnt understand the period colloquial expressions. but so far that doesnt seem to have happened.
MERIN: Anne Hathaways performance as Jane represents a huge leap forward for her. In real life, shes remarkably self-composed and articulate. Was her own language skill of the things that gave you confidence she could become Jane?
JARROLD: Yes, absolutely. And shes interested in the past and that world. And, she seems slightly different to other young American actresses who wouldve seemed completely alien in that part. I mean, its interesting that in Marie Antoinette– have you seen it?– Kirsten Dunst is really playing a modern teenager who happens to be wearing period costumes. That was a deliberate choice, but it wouldnt have worked in Becoming Jane.
Annies able to step into Janes world quite easily. And yet she also has this great energy, a vitality which is also so important for this part– because shes able to overcome that spinsterish impression people have of Jane.
MERIN: At times, this film about Janes fictitious romance feels like its one of her novels– several of which have recently been made into films. Is there a consistency of style in recent films made from Janes novels– like Joe Wrights Pride and Prejudice– and yours? Did you measure what you were doing against what they had done?
JARROLD: No. In fact, I was trying to avoid being in their vein. I didnt watch them beforehand. Id seen Ang Lees Sense and Sensibility relatively recently, and thought it a good production. Joe Wrights was good as well. But they had a different way of going at it.
MERIN: How so?
JARROLD: 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.
Its a balancing act, really, between the more romantic aspects of Janes love, in a way, and the films more serious social commentary about the pressure of the marriage market and all the rest of it. But, in a way, thats what all the films do, and thats what Janes books do. So, I guess there is a connection, and that would, I guess, be Jane.