Beautifully shot and graced with a splendid performance by Olivia Williams, Jane Austen biopic “Miss Austen Regrets” focuses on a relatively narrow window in the author’s life, serving as something of a companion to “Becoming Jane,” the 2007 feature about a young Austen starring Anne Hathaway. It is also, blessedly, less sappy than the Austen adaptations surrounding it within what “Masterpiece Theater” has christened “The Complete Jane Austen,” with the one drawback being that PBS has foolishly scheduled it opposite the Super Bowl in most of the country.
This BBC-WGBH collaboration zeroes in on Austen nearing her 40th birthday — never married and struggling financially, along with her family. Gwyneth Hughes (who penned the recent HBO miniseries “Five Days”) has stitched together the screenplay based on the writer’s surviving correspondence to her sister Cassandra (Greta Scacchi, also excellent) and her idolizing niece Fanny (Imogene Poots), who dreams of finding the sort of swoon-inducing romance that Aunt Jane has immortalized in her novels.
Despite the title, however, Williams’ Austen is no shrinking violet prone to recriminations, rather she sees her novels as beloved children and the decision not to wed as vital to the freedom she enjoyed in birthing them. As for men, she says tartly, “I never found one worth giving up flirting for.”
This isn’t to say Austen is without self-doubts, lamenting at one point how “small” her work is, unable to know the enduring success she would achieve beyond her lifetime. Left somewhat fuzzy, meanwhile, are the details surrounding Cassandra dissuading Jane from marrying early in life — a union that would have secured her economic future — though as presented, the bond between the sisters is both strong and moving. The narrative also introduces a trio of Jane’s former suitors, among them a since-married reverend (Hugh Bonneville), who has clearly never gotten over her.
Hughes and director Jeremy Lovering inevitably must rely on some filler and guesswork, since Cassandra burned many of Jane’s letters — the speculation being that she did so to spare relatives and friends from her sister’s sharp tongue. Even so, Williams’ soulful and witty embodiment of Austen establishes the novelist as a compellingly independent woman for her day, and her single life seems especially poignant given the happy-ending formula she perfected in such literary fixtures as “Emma,” “Pride and Prejudice” and “Sense and Sensibility.”
The only real shame would be if “Miss Austen Regrets” goes more unseen than most “Masterpiece” fare because of PBS’ scheduling, which forces the hollow-eyed Jane to compete against several dozen heavily muscled gentlemen in padded uniforms. It’s the kind of dunderheaded scenario, frankly, from which even the dashing Mr. Darcy would be hard-pressed to affect a rescue.