Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Ahh... Anne Hathaway

Get Smart opens this Friday, and I'm excited to see it if only because it gives Anne Hathaway ample screen time. Why do I like her so much? First, look at her. Second, and more importantly, she can act. My column from The Ellenville Journal, written after seeing Hathaway in Becoming Jane, explains it all.

Last time, I expressed my objection over recent GQ cover stories on Jessica Alba and Jessica Biel, two actresses with more physical talent than acting chops. In the process, I offered a redefinition of the sex symbol. Looks counted, of course, but the person had to have acting ability.

I even included a list of candidates. For reasons that escape me, Anne Hathaway was not on that list. That’s my mistake, because after seeing her in Becoming Jane (opening nationwide this Friday), she fits the new definition perfectly.

The movie stars Hathaway as a young Jane Austen (circa 1795) before she became a literary titan. Independent, feisty, and steadfast in her belief to marry out of love, not financial comfort, Austen begins a lengthy, fruitful flirtation with rogue Irish lawyer Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy, The Last King of Scotland). Even if you’d rather read a car manual in Hebrew than plow through Austen’s novels, Becoming Jane isn’t stuffy and doesn’t require a major effort to follow. Its light, lyrical tone, complete with a welcome cynical bite, makes it a perfect remedy for those groggy from summer blockbuster excess. And there are worse choices for a date movie.

For the movie’s romantic charm to work, the acting has to be first-rate, which it is. Hathaway has the most glamorous, but toughest role. Austen is alternately luminous, principled, and cheeky. She’s a whip-smart 20-year-old who hasn’t been molded by the forces that turn young men and women into adults; she’s still brimming with idealism. And when Austen meets Lefroy, she’s forced to test those ideals in the real world.

Hathaway nails the role, transitioning between each emotion with ease and without announcing these shifts, something a lesser actress couldn’t do. Her English accent, perfect by the way, isn’t thrown in the audience’s face. She gives a terrific performance, understated and satisfying, and one that keeps you involved in the story without focusing on the actress playing the role.

Jane Austen is the latest in a recent line of adult roles for Hathaway, including solid work in Brokeback Mountain and The Devil Wears Prada. Becoming Jane is the first of these performances where she has to carry the load, where there are no distractions. Brokeback Mountain had a controversial concept, a topless Hathaway (kind of jarring considering her Princess Diaries past), and a terrific cast. In Prada, she took a back seat to the boss-from-hell concept and the presence of Meryl Streep. Now, it’s official: Hathaway is on her own and she’s the real thing.

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