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Friday, August 3, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

"Becoming Jane" a lovable romance, especially for Austen fans

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3 stars

Showtimes and trailer

"Becoming Jane," with Anne Hathaway, James McAvoy, Julie Walters, James Cromwell, Maggie Smith. Directed by Julian Jarrold, from a screenplay by Sarah Williams and Kevin Hood.

112 minutes. Rated PG for brief nudity and mild language.

"Becoming Jane" plays like a Jane Austen novel starring Jane Austen — and what could be more arthouse friendly than that? Director Julian Jarrold, working from a screenplay by Sarah Williams and Kevin Hood based loosely on events in Austen's life, crafts a delightfully pretty picture, filled with charming manners and elegant blue-gray light. It's not a documentary, nor even a biopic (its events mostly unfold over a very brief period of Austen's life, during her 20th year), and Austen purists may scoff: Quite possibly, "Becoming Jane" may be pure fiction. But fiction, for a novelist, is as natural as breathing; here, art and fact intertwine, with the former perhaps overshadowing the latter.

It's known, from the never-married Austen's few surviving letters (her sister Cassandra destroyed the majority of them after Jane's death), that she once met a young Irishman named Tom Lefroy at a party; that a witty flirtation took place between them; and that after a short period he returned to Ireland, never to see her again. Some Austen biographers have speculated that more than banter took place between them; "Becoming Jane" picks up that idea and promenades away with it, showing us a dewy Jane (Anne Hathaway) falling unexpectedly and thoroughly in love.

Is this fact? Maybe not. Is it fun? Most certainly. Austen-ites will enjoy spotting the allusions to her novels. Tom (played with devil-may-care charm by James McAvoy) shares many a personality trait with Mr. Darcy, while the aristocratic Lady Gresham (Maggie Smith) is a dead ringer for Lady Catherine de Bourgh (both of "Pride and Prejudice"). Tom at one point turns up to apologize for his conduct, in a scene much like one in "Sense and Sensibility," and Jane's impetuous emotions remind us of that novel's Marianne Dashwood. And the movie's themes, stemming from the delicate question of who-should-marry-whom, are directly from Austen's well-thumbed pages.

Hathaway, following Renée Zellweger into the mysterious territory of American actresses playing British icons, gives a lovely performance, flitting (as one does at 20) between impishness and droopy sadness. Her Jane gently strokes the bindings of books in the library as she passes them, and conducts fiery conversations about the meaning of irony. When her heart is briefly broken, she hides it carefully behind a veil of manners; when love dictates that she take drastic action, she's unafraid. "If you could have your Robert back, even like this, would you do it?," Jane asks her sister, in quavering tones; she already knows the answer.

There are moments in "Becoming Jane" that feel almost too familiar, particularly the way Jane and Tom fall in love. (At first he annoys her, and suddenly she's smitten; Austen herself would have scripted it more subtly.) And while Smith, her voice wonderfully a-twist ("Can anything be done?" she wonders aloud about Jane's writing habit), is very funny as Lady Gresham, the character as written feels utterly predictable. Nonetheless, the movie has an immense charm that sneaks up on you. Ultimately, it's a delicate ode to love and honor — and to writing and reading.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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