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Plain Jane

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Perhaps thinking of the titles of Jane Austen's novels -- "Pride and Prejudice," "Sense and Sensibility" — the makers of "Becoming Jane," a limply named new movie about the 18th-century novelist, saw double as well.

They've provided, in one character, two versions of Jane (Anne Hathaway). One is a modern proto-feminist, playing one-upmanship with a smarmy, insulting and therefore infinitely intriguing young lawyer (James McAvoy) and taking on the rich and noble establishment at every opportunity. Then there's contemporary, proto-chick-lit Jane, who decides to keep writing because romance didn't work out quite the way she wanted it to. These two characters roughly translate into the halves of the movie, and it entertains accordingly. Neither seems quite right, but while the former strains to find the sensibility of a changing age, the other abandons all sense in favor of period melodrama.

"Becoming Jane" is lavishly produced and beautifully decorated, but with its tame story about true love, it comes off as a pile of exquisitely wrapped presents containing last year's gifts. Aside from a few excellent, Austenian observations about money, the dialogue and plot vie with the rosebushes and ivy to see which can come off mustier and more suffocating. In this idea of Jane Austen, she's the early riser of the family, impelled to get up and jot down some prose before celebrating with a burst of notes on the fortepiano. But though her work is witty and literary in the sense of prettiness, she realizes it lacks insight and experience — things, we are led to believe, that can only be found in the arms of a hunky heartthrob (McAvoy) who's just moved in next door.

Assuming that Austen drew art from her own life, the filmmakers have drawn her biopic from her novels, especially "Pride and Prejudice." Her sister, Cassandra (Anna Maxwell Martin), is getting married, which is thrilling to her mother (Julie Walters), but Jane looks to be too picky, which is driving her mother crazy. Her father (James Cromwell), a minister, is indifferent, much like the wise, laissez-faire father in "Prejudice." Her brother, a penniless petty officer in the army, is falling for a recently widowed countess, or at least for her money. Nearby, Lady Gresham (Maggie Smith) watches over it all from her large estate, her beloved but dull nephew at her side. He, along with half the county's eligible bachelors, watches over Jane longingly.

Like Austen's books, much of "Becoming Jane" concerns money and marriage, and the hopeful connection between the two. Jane's family, like the Dashwood women in "Sense and Sensibility," have the look and manners of those with money, but they need a fresh infusion in the form of a financially favorable marriage to avoid sinking into ruin. Jane could marry Lady Gresham's nephew and thereby save herself from poverty and spinsterhood. But she's looking for love. Affection is desirable, her mother tells her, but money is absolutely essential. The line is a fine observation of the times, complemented at another point when a wealthy judge tells McAvoy's character that the law has one purpose: to protect private property. If "Becoming Jane" had concentrated solely on cataloguing the hopes and fears of the age, it would have had a much better ending.

Instead, much of the movie looks like a lavishly produced re-enactment, its course plotted by a quest to insert a contemporary romance. Leisurely strolls through forests and spins around the ballroom are capped by long, heartfelt confessions of love in the moonlight. Believable motivations, which the movie strives for early, end up dissolving with the midnight candles. Jane sacrifices everything for love, then faces the ultimate sacrifice when she discovers her love is sacrificing too much. Unsure of where to end, the movie continues to pander, checking in on its characters in their old age.

One of the reasons we still read Austen's novels is that we can still see ourselves and those around us in the characters. That's different from trying to cram our age into hers. (PG) 120 min. S



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