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Hathaway shows leading lady potential in 'Becoming Jane'

By Michael Clark

Movie Critic

In what is essentially a variation on the author's own landmark novel "Pride and Prejudice," "Becoming Jane" is an uneven story of Jane Austen's life prior to fame and fortune.

There's a lot to like about the movie, particularly Anne Hathaway's charming and graceful portrayal of the title character.

Having successfully graduated beyond teenage fantasy fluff ("The Princess Diaries" franchise, "Ella Enchanted"), Hathaway had her first "adult" role in "Brokeback Mountain," where she proved she had true staying power. Her lead performance in "The Devil Wears Prada" was a step backwards, as she was summarily upstaged by Meryl Streep and Emily Blunt.

"Becoming Jane" shows a future favorite leading lady finally harnessing her considerable talents. If she sticks with the right material, Hathaway could become the next Streep, if not the next Julia Roberts.

However impressive she may be, Hathaway is never able to completely transcend the movie's iffy screenplay and inconsistent production values. "Becoming Jane" is a standard-issue period piece cut from second-hand Merchant/Ivory cloth.

While the film is a marked improvement over his last effort, "Kinky Boots," taking on such an important historical figure is beyond the talents of director Julian Jarrold. It doesn't help Jarrold's cause that the script by Kevin Hood and Sarah Williams tosses in far too much superfluous and fictional subplot. With a character as rich and as complex as Austen, a straight-ahead biography would have worked far better. The movie also never sufficiently explains or delves into Austen's writing process.

In the late 18th century, women - particularly English women - were only as good as the men they married. Austen's parents (Julie Walters and James Cromwell) married for love, not money, and at least one of them was determined Jane and her sister Cassandra (Anna Maxwell Martin) wouldn't make the same mistake.

Jane was willing to go along with the plan and marry a rich but boring guy until the financially strapped Irish lawyer Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy) blew into her life. A handsome rogue with a penchant for bare-knuckle brawling, Tom provided that bad-boy level of danger to which so many women are drawn. The not-so-instantly smitten Jane was certainly one of them.

The filmmakers handle the love story subplot as if it were part of a below-average American romantic comedy. Jane and Tom start at odds, fall head over heels, then squabble some more. In the end, to the writers' credit, the relationship is taken in an unexpected direction. It's original, but it's also too little, too late. The generic damage has already been done.

The Austen faithful will want to check this movie out, if only for curiosity's sake, but they'll likely walk away feeling they were treated to just an interesting prologue and epitaph. The true body of Austen's life and her work are nowhere to be found. (Miramax)