The title irked me. The trailer irked me. The entire implication that, if it weren’t for meeting the “love of her life,” Jane Austen couldn’t have written her novels—or even been a complete person—irked me. So why did I go to see Becoming Jane anyway? Well, first off, you know I enjoy criticizing films, especially when they tread on what I consider to be my turf. Secondly, it features dance scenes with fiddler Aidan Broadbridge, whose live music I’ve frolicked to during New Year’s Eve parties for dance-nerds.
Notice that my love for Jane Austen’s novels is not one of my reasons for going to see Becoming Jane. Dormouse suggested that it might be better off for me and for my fellow moviegoers if I regarded the movie as being about a random person who just happened to have the name of Jane Austen. And, actually, I don’t mind a movie that fictionalizes a writer’s (or any historical figure’s) life in order to make a good story. Go right ahead. What I do resent is that at least the latest two films benefitting from Austen-mania (the Keira Knightley Pride and Prejudice and Becoming Jane) have ignored Austen’s wit in favor of sweeping romance; in other words, I don’t mind that the life being depicted isn’t really Austen’s, but I do mind that the writing being depicted isn’t really Austen’s.
Because the young woman played by Anne Hathaway is supposed to be a writer, I do resent the moments in the movie that suggest that she drew her inspiration directly from—no, directly copied—real people and conversations in her life. Sure, all writers work from experience—you can’t avoid it. But not all experience is empirical, though the popular creative writing theory of today would have us believe so. Experience doesn’t have to be seen or touched or overheard in order to be real. To have a character in Becoming Jane, and a male character at that, utter the phrase “It is a truth universally acknowledged,” and then to see “Jane” scribbling it down in the next scene (never mind that Sense and Sensibility was written before Pride and Prejudice) makes her into a mere scribe. Would a film ever cast an iconic male writer in this light? Probably not.
To be fair, Becoming Jane does at least address the “writing comes from [empirical] experience” assumption that underlies its story and dialogue. Young Irish lawyer Tom Lefroy, before he sweeps Jane off her feet, tells her that, in order to become more than an “accomplished” young lady writer, she must experience the wider world, thus to attain the scope of “masculine” (yep, he uses the word) writing. Then he gives her Tom Jones. What the heck? It is a truth universally acknowledged that Tom Jones is not exactly a portrayal of realistic experience. Anyway, after reading Tom Jones for herself, Jane does get to offer a comeback to Lefroy, but it seems a bit confused, perhaps because, plotwise, the most significant effect of the novel is to awaken her sensuality.
The Knightley Pride and Prejudice and Becoming Jane do have in common that they’re mostly about mud and sex (never the two at the same time, though—we wouldn’t want to offend the audience’s sensibilities too much). Sure, mud and sex existed in Austen’s world, and it’s fine to acknowledge that. What I react against is, again, the emphasis on empirical experience as the only experience that matters. Pretty much, the movie boils down to “Jane wants Lefroy because of sex, but she ultimately chooses not to marry him because of mud.” Poverty, the film tells us, equals mud—Jane’s mother has to dig her own potatoes because she married a poor clergyman. Now, Jane is willing to endure mud for herself, but when her decisions threaten to leave others wallowing in the dirt, she has to stop and reconsider actions driven by sexual attraction and romance.
(By the way, I do credit the filmmakers with choosing the perfect operatic piece to underline the sexual themes of the movie: “De vieni non tardar,” from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, which, as a voice teacher once told me, is all about sex. If you know the words and their subtext, it works perfectly—for what the movie’s trying to achieve, anyway. If you don’t, it may seem odd that Jane is so moved at hearing a fat middle-aged lady sing a random song.)
Anyway, to return to the art/experience theme . . . a potentially interesting twist occurs when Jane meets Mrs. Radcliffe, author of Gothic novels such as The Mysteries of Udolpho. Radcliffe lives a quiet life, and Jane makes the rather obvious comment that her lifestyle contrasts so greatly with the supernatural content of her novels. Mrs. Radcliffe points out that imagination can supply what is portrayed here as a deficit of experience. Argh. This is making me want to do some breakin’ down of the binaries, if you know what I mean. Why do imagination and experience have to be portrayed as separate sources of inspiration? Anyway, most of the potential complexity the scene contributes gets squelched because Jane seems more interested in Mrs. Radcliffe’s personal model of combining marriage and writing than she is in learning anything about writing itself.
I do think that Becoming Jane does an admirable job of portraying the difficult economic negotiations of late-eighteenth/early-nineteenth century marriage—for men, as well as women. It just loses credibility in the reasons for Jane’s and Lefroy’s attraction to each other (except for the aforementioned sexual attraction). It’s not exactly a meeting of like minds. When, in Pride and Prejudice, Lizzy says that, between them, Mr. Wickham and Mr. Darcy have just about enough goodness for one man, she wasn’t suggesting that filmmakers try to make one man into both Wickham and Darcy. As appealing as actor James McAvoy is, even he can’t make oscillations between Bad Boy and Misunderstood Gentleman entirely convincing. It seems like, plotwise, he could have just been poor, rather than dissolute to boot. Ah, but then we wouldn’t have the “widening” of Jane’s experience. Grr.
Of course, even the film can’t argue that the happy-ending-marriages in Austen’s novels were based in empirical experience, since Austen herself never married. What does the movie do instead? It suggests that Austen’s endings were a way of giving her characters the good things that she never had. I don’t think the screenwriters intended it this way, but for me, it comes off as suggesting that Austen’s novels were a kind of adolescent wish-fulfillment, which is about as insulting as you can get toward some of the wittiest and most insightful novels in the English language.
There were parts of the movie that I still enjoyed, but in order for me to turn my feminist and aesthetic indignation off, it would have needed to forsake all pretense of being about a writer at all, let alone a writer named Jane Austen.
Final Random Observations: (1.) I like the score for the movie. Might have to buy the soundtrack, and not just for Aidan Broadbridge. (2.) Even though he isn’t conventionally handsome (but he is a skinny Scotsman, so I of course like him) and though his character is a little schizophrenic, James McAvoy does a good job with the soulful glances at his ladylove. Unfortunately, since she’s played by Anne Hathaway, whose eyes are a bit unnerving, she can’t reciprocate very well.
August 21st, 2007
It’s hard to talk about The Last King of Scotland without revealing the ending. Major reviewers haven’t succeeded in remaining spoiler-free with this particular film, and because, in part, I want to respond to them, neither will I. So if you intend to see this movie and want to experience it as a suspense-thriller, then stop reading now.
So, here are the plot-revealing reviewers’ comments that made me interested in, and yet initially wary of, The Last King of Scotland. Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly writes, “The conclusion suggests, quite questionably, that only through the testimony of white men like the doctor could black Ugandans influence world awareness of Amin as a mass murderer.” And, on a similar note, Christianity Today’s Peter Chattaway adds, “In this film. . . a black colleague tells Garrigan he wants to help him escape the country so that he can tell the world what Amin is really like: ‘They will believe you, you are a white man.’ So for all the film’s post-colonial subtext, it does little to challenge the idea that the stories that matter are the ones in which the white man takes centre stage.”
I expected to agree with these assessments and to share the reviewers’ concern that the movie implied that the salvation of Africa lay in the white man’s hands. As much as I admired Hotel Rwanda as a powerful, well-made, well-acted film, I did squirm a little bit at the implication that, if only the white world hadn’t turned its back, things might have been different. No one should ever turn a blind eye to genocide, but never should it boil down to “whites” fixing “black” problems, either. I even worry about this with things like Bono’s crusade against AIDS in Africa and the ONE campaign. I certainly don’t want them to stop, because I think they’re raising awareness to something we all ought to care—and do something—about, but I do wonder sometimes if it just gives us one more excuse to shake our heads at the “Dark Continent” and mutter, “the horror, the horror.”
The Last King of Scotland does certainly have its share of “the horror, the horror” moments, but they mostly occur because the young Scottish doctor Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy, who seems to be in every Oscar-baiting movie released these days) gets himself into genuinely horrifying situations though a combination of his own stupidity, naïvete, arrogance, and carelessness. I had been referring to Last King as a “genocide movie” before I saw it, but we actually see very little of the mass carnage of the Amin regime. All the brutality we see occurs at a more personal level, mostly within Amin’s own cabinet and household.
What’s more, I disagree that the film leaves you with a sense that white men’s testimony is the key to solving Uganda’s problems. If anything, the opposite, because this particular white man is so naïve and inept. When the black Ugandan doctor utters the line, “They will believe you—you are a white man,” it is with utter bitterness and contempt. This doctor risks his life to save Garrigan’s worthless hide, and we’re left thinking that Garrigan has a major personal debt to repay, not just a racial or even national one. (Way more problematic than that line is the fact that two Americans, Forest Whitaker and Kerry Washington, play the two Ugandan characters with the most screen-time. Whitaker does a fabulous job, of course, and I wholeheartedly agree that there need to be more good roles for African American actors–I just wish that directors would cast Africans as Africans more often, though.)
Sure, you could see Garrigan as a stand-in for centuries of whites who have mucked about in Africa and generally made a mess of things. What’s interesting, though, is that Garrigan, in his 1970s optimism and self-styled liberalism, honestly seems to believe that he has more in common with the oppression of black Africans than with the privilege of a white Englishman. “I’m Scottish,” he insists, whenever anyone dares to call him British.
Yes, the film does tell the story of Idi Amin from a white man’s perspective, but I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with that. In fact, I think the “Scottish” angle is a brilliant way to tell one part of Idi Amin’s story (and it’s certainly appropriate for a director who is, after all, Scottish—I’d be more troubled if a Scottish director claimed to be accurately representing the experience of black Africans). Amin’s real, documented obsession with Scotland (he wore kilts and named his sons things like “Cameron” and “Mackenzie”) becomes a way for the film to explore issues of both race and colonialism. In one of the DVD extras, director Kevin Macdonald explains that Scotland represented for Amin an ideal position in relation to England: it had been colonized by the English, but it now had a separate (and, in the 1970s, a growing nationalist) identity. Yet it still benefited economically and politically from being part of Great Britain.
However, does it make a difference that the Scots and the Brits are both viewed as white? Garrigan seems to want to believe it doesn’t make a difference, and early on, Amin seems willing to play this game. As the story progresses, though, you better bet race becomes significant. Garrigan becomes a lot more ready to associate himself with the British when they seem to hold the key to his exit visa. What ultimately allows him to escape? Yes, the sacrifice of the black doctor, but, practically, this opportunity wouldn’t have arisen if it weren’t for Garrigan’s white skin. (He blends into a group of European hostages who are being released.)
Now, the whole hostage situation and its exact timing with Garrigan’s capture and near-death is a little improbable. Even worse on the probability scale is the melodrama that develops when Garrigan begins having an affair with one of Amin’s wives. This whole subplot seems to exist to ratchet up Garrigan’s guilt over the mess he’s made of things, the harm he’s caused to the people he’s supposed to be trying to help (a theme already dealt with quite effectively when he unintentionally causes the death of a fellow Amin adviser). Garrigan gets Kay Amin pregnant, and she asks him to perform an abortion for her before Amin or anyone else finds out. He refuses, she goes to a village doctor, who badly botches the job, she goes to a real hospital, and in the meantime, somehow gets butchered by Amin’s men, who have found out. Now, the last part of this is actually historical fact, though Kay Amin’s affair was with a black doctor, not a white one. But, given Garrigan’s closeness to Idi Amin, it seems improbable that Amin would remain ignorant of the affair—or that he wouldn’t act immediately to kill and/or dismember Garrigan once he knew. Garrigan’s stupidity in the whole business is actually believable, because the film establishes early on that he has overactive hormones and a certain lack of regard for the marital bond. What happens to Kay Amin as a result of Garrigan’s actions may be a symbol for what happened to Africa under European colonialism, but it’s a symbol that fails to work at a simple plot level.
Anyway, I’m certainly glad I’ve seen The Last King of Scotland, because it was thought-provoking, if uneven. Peter Morgan, screenwriter for The Queen, was one of the co-writers for The Last King of Scotland, and I think it’s in part his words that led to Forest Whitaker’s and Helen Mirren’s victorious awards season earlier this year. I’m looking forward to his next work on The Other Boleyn Girl (seriously, what’s up with his royalty trend?) and Frost/Nixon (though, since that’s based on a play, I’m not sure how much he’ll have to do).
August 11th, 2007