Screenwriters Sarah Williams and Kevin Hood have taken a brief relationship between 20-year-old Jane Austen and a young Irishman studying law, noted in a few of the famed English author's letters, and imagined a full-blown and potentially life-changing love affair in Becoming Jane. Austen's romantic novels have been made into a group of distinguished movies — Emma, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion, and Mansfield Park — but this is the first film devoted to her own life. The familiar Austen themes of money, status, family, freedom, and true love are all evident in this drama set in 1795 England.

Jane Austen (Anne Hathaway) lives with her pastor father (James Cromwell), mother (Julie Walters), sister Cassandra (Anna Maxwell Martin), brother Henry (Joe Anderson), and brother George (Philip Culhane), who is deaf. Since they are very near poverty, her mother insists that Jane take seriously the need to marry soon so that she will have someone to take care of her. The most formidable candidate is Mr. Wisley (Laurence Fox), who is due to inherit the riches and gigantic estate of the imperious Lady Gresham (Maggie Smith). The only problem is that Jane finds him to be a awkward bore and can't conceive of loving him, even with time.

Jane's sister Cassandra is engaged to a young man who is studying for the ministry; he is about to go on an expedition to the West Indies, after which he has been promised a nice pastorate. Jane's sophisticated cousin, Eliza De Feuillide (Lucy Cohu), lost her husband to the guillotine in France and is romantically interested in Henry. His friend Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy) has been sent to Somerset by his wealthy uncle, Judge (Ian Richardson), to learn some humility by staying with some indigent relatives, including young Lucy (Jessica Ashworth), who promptly develops a crush on him. Tom has a reputation for being a cad and an undisciplined young man who loves breaking the conventions of society. Paying a call on the Austens, he dozes off when Jane is reading a piece of original writing about her sister. Jane is put off by him, even more so when he tells her he finds her writing only "accomplished" because she is inexperienced in the ways of the world. He suggests she read The History of Tom Jones to widen her horizons. She does and offers a lively critique of it, totally enchanting Tom. Something stirs in Jane, too, and she wonders if it could be love. Her mother has told her that in matrimony: "Affection is desirable; money is absolutely indispensable." And Tom has no money.

Anne Hathaway does a marvelous job conveying Jane Austen' s heart-felt yearnings for love and her rightful place in a literary world dominated by men. In one of the story's best scenes, Tom takes her to meet a female writer of Gothic novels who makes a living despite going against the tide of opinion. Director Julian Jarrold has masterfully cast this drama with Maggie Smith, Ian Richardson, James Cromwell, and Julie Walters, wonderful veterans who can bring both authority and nuance to their performances. James McAvoy (The Last King of Scotland) is appropriately charming, caddish, and vulnerable as Tom. One of the playful dividends of the film for Jane Austen fans is trying to identify scenes and characters the screenwriters have borrowed from her novels.

Special DVD features include a commentary with director Julian Jarrold, writer Kevin Hood, and producer Robert Bernstein; deleted scenes; Becoming Jane Pop-Up Facts & Footnotes; and a featurette "Discovering the Real Jane Austen."