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Television review

Two cents and some sensibility

Olivia Williams stars as Jane Austen in PBS's 'Miss Austen Regrets.' Olivia Williams stars as Jane Austen in PBS's "Miss Austen Regrets." (BBC 2007 for masterpiece)
Email|Print| Text size + By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / February 2, 2008

Unlike her heroines, who inevitably found their ways to love and commitment, Jane Austen never married. "I am she that loved and lost," she jokes with exaggerated melodrama to her niece, Fanny, in PBS's new Austen biopic, "Miss Austen Regrets."

But Austen is certainly a great heroine in this moody movie, part of the "Masterpiece" season of Jane. Written by Gwyneth Hughes, of HBO's tense kidnap thriller "Five Days," "Miss Austen Regrets" gives us an uncompromising, witty woman who is deeply sad but never pathetic. Hughes has crafted her Jane from the few facts available about the author, and from what might exist of the author's life in her final novel, "Persuasion." And actress Olivia Williams has brought Jane to life with startling believability, as an aunt whose great wisdom about love and human nature did nothing to help her find her own happiness.

The movie, which premieres tomorrow night at 9 on Channel 2, isn't a classic biopic; it isn't just a spin through the big moments of Austen's life. She publishes "Pride and Prejudice"! She rejects suitors! She dies! Hughes aims for a more nebulous rumination on Austen, imagining a personality that could create characters blinded by self-interest because she understood them so well. If "Persuasion" warns against being persuaded out of love, Jane was not above using all of her covert energy to pry Fanny out of her attraction to the stiff, but kind, Mr. Plumtree. While her novels urged love over all else, this Jane is wont to toss off lines such as, "Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor, and the best recipe I know for happiness is a large income."

Jane's relationship with Fanny is what holds the movie together thematically. Fanny (Imogen Poots) looks to her aunt for romantic advice, and Jane is always willing to share her clever nuggets, even when they seem to contradict one another. One moment, she's warning, "Nothing compares to the misery of being bound without love," and the next she is observing, "This is the real world; the only way to get a man like Mr. Darcy is to make him up." Jane enjoys sharing her tart views with Fanny, but she privately struggles with the role of aunt, since it represents an end of her own potential for courtship.

While Jane loves to mock melodrama, "Miss Austen Regrets" is intensely melodramatic, at times too much so. Did Jane Austen ever talk about anything other than love, marriage, and money? I suspect she did, but the movie fails to establish that. And so many of the details are left vague - about Jane's failed romances, about the Austen family's dwindling financial prospects - that the storytelling frequently feels sketchy.

What saves the movie from terminal operatic gloom are Jane's moments of pride regarding her novels, which she calls "my darling children," and her sustaining relationship with her sister Cassandra (Greta Scacchi). Jane has insecurities about her writing, and she and Cassandra have an unresolved conflict in their past, but she still finds profound solace in their presence in her life. Despite all her cynicism and confusion about love, she loves them powerfully.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit boston.com/ae/tv/blog/.

Miss Austen Regrets

Starring: Olivia Williams, Imogen Poots, Greta Scacchi, Hugh Bonneville, Phyllida Law

On: PBS, Channel 2

Time: Tomorrow night, 9-10:30

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