Anne Hathaway shines in Jonathan Demme's affecting drama "Rachel Getting Married."

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A rambling old country house, its cozy clutter concealing the secrets of an unhappy family. An upcoming wedding. A pair of sisters entangled by love, resentment and history. A twitchy handheld camera, wandering through the long hallways. Yes, it’s tempting to dismiss Jonathan Demme’s “Rachel Getting Married” as a brunette version of last year’s disappointing “Margot at the Wedding,” but don’t. This emotionally wrenching drama is an actors’ showcase, a primer on quick-and-dirty filmmaking that nonetheless looks beautiful, and a welcome-to-the-big-leagues party for Anne Hathaway, who shows here that she’s left her Disney princess days behind for good.

Hathaway plays Kym Buchman, a young woman returning to her family home for the wedding of her sister Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt). Kym, who has the sort of carelessly chopped-off hair that makes her look like a lost waif, is emerging from a stint in rehab; she speaks in arch, raspy tones (note how Hathaway’s completely drained the usual perkiness out of her patrician voice) and clutches cigarettes like they’re a lifeline. She is both self-absorbed and aching for love, and her relationship with her sister and other family members (including her divorced parents) is far too complicated for dialogue to explain. Screenwriter Jenny Lumet wisely leaves it to us to piece together: The Buchmans have tragedy in their past, though we don’t learn what it is until midway through the movie.

Within the chaos of the wedding preparations (various strangers flit in and out of those hallways, doing whatever it is that people organizing weddings do), a stark character drama plays out. Kym and Rachel both adore and resent each other; Kym needs the spotlight, even as it’s Rachel’s wedding weekend. (“I’ve been a nightmare; you’ve been a saint,” says Kym in an awkward rehearsal-dinner toast to her sister; it’s the key to their relationship, for good or ill.) When their mother Abby (Debra Winger) appears — late, as always — it’s clear who Kym takes after.

Demme, with the remarkable cinematographer Declan Quinn (“Monsoon Wedding,” “In America”), gives it all the immediacy of an affectionately filmed home movie. (A minor character — the groom’s cousin — is constantly shown in the background with a video camera; it’s as if he’s shooting the film for us.) And the actors simply become their characters, from Anisa George’s wonderfully sneery portrayal of a peevish demoted bridesmaid (loyal to Rachel, she clearly has a long history of despising Kym); to Bill Irwin’s nervous, constantly nurturing father; to Winger’s brilliant, brief portrayal of a woman who’s almost, but not quite, learned to put pain aside. Irwin and Winger have a brief embrace, late in the film, that’s practically a story in itself.

But this is Hathaway’s film, and she dives into this often unlikable role fearlessly. Kym is an emotional woman constantly on the quivery verge of tears, which she tries to cover with elaborately casual posture and throwaway deadpan humor. Hathaway draws us to the character even as we’re frustrated by her, using her expressive eyes to convey Kym’s essential sadness and pain. Confronting her past, she finds both guilt and forgiveness tangled together like forgotten wedding streamers — or like this film’s haunting smiles and tears.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725

or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com