Becoming Jane

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Call it the Gwyneth Syndrome: The crippling affliction that causes talented young American actresses to strap on corsets, put their hair up in elaborate buns and affect British accents. We've lost Paltrow and Zellweger, seemingly for good; now we can count Anne Hathaway among the legion of upwardly mobile starlets desperate for a little cred — and a trophy or two — to go along with their Hollywood cash.

That she turned down the raucous Knocked Up for Becoming Jane, a fluffy fantasia on the life of Jane Austen, only adds to Hathaway's aura of haughtiness. One of those speculative fictions on the life of a famous author — see also Miss Potter and Finding Neverland — the movie cherry-picks a few details from Austen's frumpy, mostly unhappy existence, melds them with witticisms and situations that intentionally call to mind her novels and inserts a dashing but duplicitous love interest. Behold Jane Austen, the spunky rom-com heroine.

It's not as bad as it sounds, actually. Crummy title and convenient plot twists aside, Becoming Jane rises and falls on the chemistry of its two leads — Hathaway and the omnipresent next-big-thing James McAvoy (best known as the guy who didn't win an Oscar for The Last King of Scotland) — both of whom bring out the best in each other. Together, they manage to flesh out an underwritten love story and add spark to the usual battle-of-the-sexes clichés. It's by no means a definitive Austen biography, but it doesn't pretend to be; unlike last fall's Marie Antoinette, it's a light costume drama with surprising depth, not a portentous epic with nothing in its pretty little head.

With her silky ringlets of hair and porcelain features, Hathaway is sort of like the pin-up version of the author, although director Julian Jarrold has valiantly attempted to de-glam her with unflattering country dresses and very little makeup. But those saucer-sized brown eyes are ultimately an asset: They give Hathaway a disarming openness and vulnerability, and she and Jarrold use that to their advantage, suggesting Austen's sensitivity and intelligence if not her undoubtedly shy, reticent nature. (As Brokeback Mountain proved, closed-off is not something Hathaway does well.)

And when McAvoy arrives on the scene — quite literally dashing into the film, wearing a green velvet coat — the movie gets even better. As the rogue Irish lawyer who effortlessly sweeps her off her feet, he has a brusque, physical presence the film desperately needs, and Hathaway becomes more alert when she's around him. Their clever banter is far from authentic, and some of Becoming Jane is downright trite: You might want to cover your eyes during the corny montage of Jane pacing around her room, scrawling the opening pages of Pride and Prejudice by candlelight. But as long as the actors sell their parts as well as McAvoy and Hathaway do, you're liable to believe that the star-crossed young lovers of Jane Austen's novels really did populate her life.

Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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