Miss Austen Regrets Review

One woman’s failure to meet her very own Mr Darcy…

In the unlikely event that I’ll ever invent a time machine, one of my many ports of call will be to Jane Austen, whom I shall advise on retaining, by all means possible and regardless of her lack of understanding of the technology, the television rights of her novels. I grant you that my understanding of copyright law may be somewhat lacking but if Austen should somehow connive to protect her novels, what remains of her family would now be richer than all of the House of Saud. Those six novels, though individually slim, are returned to time and again by television companies seeking a handsomely romantic drama for their Sunday night viewing. Women of a certain age still become misty-eyed when thinking of Colin Firth striding out of the river, his white shirt soaked through while others will have fond memories of Elizabeth Garvie’s playing of Elizabeth Bennett from the 1980 adaptation. Persuasion, Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey and Emma have all been dramatised several times while Hugh Grant really wasn’t at all bad in Ang Lee’s Sense & Sensibility. Although, to be fair to the sadly departed Ms Cartland, he was very much better in The Lady And The Highwayman.

Rather than adapting one of Austen’s novels, Miss Austen Regrets takes as its inspiration the letters written by Jane (Olivia Williams) to her sister Cassandra (Greta Scacchi). Nearing forth, Jane Austen is unmarried and seemingly content in spinsterhood. She has her writing, a close family who guide her affairs in the matter of business and the company of Cassandra, who is perhaps the only one who truly understands her. However, as her niece Fanny questions Jane about romance, she realises just how little she knows on the subject. Looking back over her life, she counts the opportunities for romance that passed her by, of friendships that failed to blossom into marriage and how those men she finds herself drawn towards are now running into the arms of much younger ladies.

Inasmuch as one might leave Miss Austen Regrets with the thought that one could never know the actual events of Jane Austen’s life and how much of a work of fiction this is, one can be assured that the casting of Olivia Williams is almost perfect. Without ever really knowing what Jane Austen was like, Williams portrays her and, as an audience, we believe completely in her Jane Austen. At times silly and foolish, sometimes fragile and lonely but always with an intelligence that seems formidable, she seems somewhat lost when separated from her books. Her embarrassing the vicar with her talk of romance is amusing but when her actual attempts at seduction fall flat, one sees her vulnerability. Some of this has to do with her age. Austen is nearing forty by the time of Miss Austen Regrets but one can’t help but think that many of the men that she meets simply don’t care for a woman more articulate than themselves. Perhaps the most interesting thread of romance in the film is in Austen’s relationship with the Reverend Brook Bridges (Hugh Bonneville), albeit that we learn very little about it.

In truth, we don’t learn very much about Jane Austen. Were this only a biography, that would be a problem but Miss Austen Regrets is more about tone and character than it is events. The Reverend Brook Bridges not only provides the regret of the film’s title but reminds us that though Jane Austen may have written of Mr Darcy, her own life suffered from suitors who felt unable to measure up to her own creation. To Bridges, perhaps the only man to whom she can be completely honest, she admits that Darcy would not have been for her. These words come as Austen attends a picnic near her family home, one that brings to mind a similar outing in Emma, but they come too late for Austen and Bridges. Austen is unwell, though she hides the extent of her illness from others, but she remains somehow outside of events. No matter that she is celebrated by royalty, her writings are disapproved of in her own home. While England praises her romances, she ends her days in a house of spinsters and widows, as much alone at the end as ever she was.

Anamorphically presented in 1.78:1, this is a very handsome production. Intended for, and originally shown, on a Sunday night in April, the quality of Miss Austen Regrets is evident throughout. There is perhaps a touch more impressionism that would be in an Austen novel but there is no disguising the fact that this is a beautifully filmed piece of work. Not only does it look no worse than it did when shown earlier this year on television, it actually looks very much better. The picture is sharp and detailed and while some of the backgrounds blend into ciphers for the seasons – lush green lawns in summer and leaves turning to brown in the autumn – the DVD never fails to pick out the emotions shown in the faces of the cast. Miss Austen Regrets is a pleasure to watch.

The DD2.0 audio track, while not a particularly memorable listen, goes about its business with a lack of fuss. The dialogue is always audible, the ambient sounds reflect the English countryside well and what little action there is sounds fine through the front speakers. One needn’t mourn the lack of a DD5.1 soundtrack as this one is more than capable. Finally, there are English subtitles throughout.

There are no extras on this release.

Eamonn McCusker

Updated: Jul 04, 2008

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