Julian Jarrold chats with Jennifer Merin re “Being Jane”

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“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 Jarrold’s 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, 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.

MERIN: 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?

JARROLD: 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 fifteen 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 colloquial expressions. but so far that doesn’t seem to have happened.

MERIN: 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 of the things that gave you confidence she could become Jane?

JARROLD: Yes, absolutely. And she’s interested in the past and that world. And, she seems slightly different to other young American actresses who would’ve seemed completely alien in that part. I mean, it’s 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 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.

MERIN: At times, this film about Jane’s 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 Jane’s novels– like Joe Wright’s “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 didn’t watch them beforehand. I’d seen Ang Lee’s “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.

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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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is a member of the Critics Choice Association in the Film, Documentary and TV branches and a voting member of the Black Reel Awards. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).