TV Review: Miss Austen Regrets

“That’s what it says in all of your books”

In 2007, the cinemas got the Anne Hathaway-starring Becoming Jane but television got Miss Austen Regrets, featuring Olivia Williams in extraordinary form as the feted author in the final years of her life. Close to 40 and looking unlikely as ever to get married herself, Jane is the favourite of her beloved niece Fanny who is dipping her toes into the world of liaisons and engagements and can’t think of anything more fabulous than an aunt whose romantic novels ought to make her an expert able to give perfect advice. But as Jane reflects on her life lived, the opportunities missed and rejected, and the perilous state those choices have left her mother and sister in, she is forced to consider if insecurity is too great a price to pay for her ambition.

For though her success is bringing her much renown, financial security eludes her as an unwed woman. She can’t own the property in which she lives, she can’t negotiate a better deal with her publisher, the independence she craves is held frustratingly just at arm’s length. But for all that, this is an unashamedly romantic and sparkily humourous piece of film which holds huge delight. Olivia Williams is impeccable as Austen – the flirtatious glint in her eye as she cuts a swathe through the stuffiness of convention, the nervous hesitation as her status sweeps her up in society, the oceans of emotional intelligence in her eyes as she has to deal with the concerns of the family and the ramifications of her choices – she is endlessly watchable and perfectly cast.

She is served well by Gwyneth Hughes’ script and Jeremy Lovering’s direction, but there’s excellent support around her too. Greta Scacchi is achingly good as equally unmarried sister Cassandra and their scene together towards the end of the film is a thing of pure beauty, simply gorgeous work from all concerned; Imogen Poots as the flighty Fanny is charmingly contrary with the rollercoaster of her youthful emotions; Toms Hiddleston and Goodman-Hill make hilariously earnest suitors for one or other of the Austen girls and Adrian Edmondson proves dramatically adept as Jane’s hapless brother Henry.

Those more invested in their Austen-lore may cavil at historical inaccuracies and liberties but that seems to miss the point of this piece of drama which is of course fiction, as even with letters and diaries from her hand, there’s a limit to what we can know for sure. And there’s something much more fun in the suggestions here of what might have been – the events that inspired plot points in her writing, the lasting faithfulness she inspired in her former beaux, the mischievousness with which she attacked much of life – that enlivens Miss Austen Regrets way above the realm of historical documentary into utterly fascinating character study. 

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