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Prim & proper
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Perhaps staying too close for true originality to the style and plot line of 2005's "Pride and Prejudice," director Julian Jarrold nevertheless strikes a chord with his prim and proper take on Jane Austen as a young woman trying to live up to the heavy expectations of Georgian society.

Set in the English countryside at the end of the eighteenth century "Becoming Jane" is both a tale of star-crossed lovers and a splash of cold realism. Like the heroines of her famous novels, Jane Austen (Anne Hathaway, "The Devil Wears Prada") grew up knowing that her most important duty in life was to make a profitable match in marriage.

"Becoming Jane" depicts the inner struggle of young Austen with the wishes of her family and her own desire to marry the penniless but charming Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy, "The Last King of Scotland"). A largely fictionalized account of the real-life flirtation between the famous writer and the future Chief Justice of Ireland, the film asks and answers the question of what experiences/influences likely shaped Austen's life and consequently her writing.

Even with the best script and the best director, if the leading actors don't have chemistry together, it's all for naught. Happily McAvoy and Hathaway have onscreen chemistry in spades.

Though American actress Hathaway's British accent is not consistent throughout the film, she more than makes up for it with her earnest and energetic portrayal of the young Austen. With this latest turn and previous roles in "Brokeback Mountain" and "The Devil Wears Prada," Hathaway has really made name for herself as one of young Hollywood's leading actresses. It's nice to know that every once and a while the Disney machine spews out a good one.

Scottish actor McAvoy - who has made a name for himself playing flawed yet relatable characters - gives a swoon-worthy performance as the rakish Tom Lefroy, a young man, like Austen, torn between his own desires and his responsibilities to family. Already heralded as one of Britain's shining young stars, American audiences across the pond are only just getting their first taste of McAvoy's considerable talent.

But with films such as "Becoming Jane" and this fall's "Atonement," where McAvoy will play the romantic lead opposite British beauty Keira Knightley, American females (this one included) no doubt will soon be clamoring for more of McAvoy's soulful blue eyes.

Rounding out the considerably talented cast, Maggie Smith ("Room With a View") and Julie Waters ("Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix") also turn in solid performances, most notably Waters who plays Austen's much-vexed mother.

Set in the picturesque countryside of Austen's birthplace in Hampshire (though the bulk of principal photography for the movie was filmed in southern Ireland), the film has historical backdrops of majestic country estates, complimented by period costumes and an achingly bittersweet score composed by Adrian Johnston.

The final product is a haunting look at the strictures of a society which subsumed the individual's wants in favor of duty to one's family.



"Becoming Jane" is rated PG for brief nudity and mild language and has a running time of 1 hour and 52 minutes.