Miss Austen Regrets

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9 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 3
WNET (New York)

Following in the wake of other recent Jane Austen biopic confections (the latest being last year's feature "Becoming Jane Austen"), Gwyneth Hughes' literate charmer "Miss Austen Regrets" for "Masterpiece Theatre" draws imaginatively on Austen's letters and novels to portray a woman whose heart and intellect were rich with the kind of feminist thinking that resonates strongly with women today.

The story becomes more interesting as it nears its close. The general hubbub that Jane's mother triggers near the end -- questioning whether her daughter's sacrifice of marriage and safety for principles of love and independence made her happy -- legitimately suggests the historical-based possibility that Austen was not as emotionally restrained in her life as she was in her fiction.

Accordingly, Austen's life and the world she created in her writing provide ample opportunities for a fine cast that's dominated by Olivia Williams' performance as Jane. Knowing that she must sustain a relatively limited emotional journey for 90 minutes, Williams uses the richly expressive nuances of her fine, beautiful face and voice to great and moving effect.

The other outstanding performance is 18-year-old Imogen Poots as Jane's impressionable young niece, Fanny. As with Williams, the camera positively eats Poots up, examining her obsessively from every angle. While Poots may not be a conventionally pretty face, it is highly addicting.

Also to be noted are Hugh Bonneville as Jane's rejected suitor and confidant (a good part, the only man in the story who has much dimensionality to him) and Sylvie Herbert as Austen's wise French maid, who at one point tells her employer that French women have taken to "Sense and Snobbishly" because, "We read about your heroines and feel young again, and full of hope."

It is easy for a critic to make fun of the cottage industry that Austen has become, but considering Hughes' polished treatment, Jennie Muskett's atmospheric music and director Jeremy Lovering's loving regard for his actors and the gorgeous English countryside, it will be hard for viewers, particularly Austen fans, to have many regrets at all.

MISS AUSTEN REGRETS
WNET New York
BBC, WGBH Boston
Credits:
Executive producers: Rebecca Eaton, David M. Thompson
Producers: Anne Pivcevic, Jamie Laurenson
Teleplay: Gwyneth Hughes
Director: Jeremy Lovering
Director of photography: David Katznelson
Editor: Luke Dunkley
Composer: Jennie Muskett
Casting director: Jill Trevellick
Production designer: Melanie Allen
Costume designer: Andrea Galer
Cast:
Jane Austen: Olivia Williams
Fanny Austen Knight: Imogen Poots
Cassandra Austen: Greta Scacchi
Rev. Brook Bridges: Hugh Bonneville
Henry Austen: Adrian Edmondson
Charles Haden: Jack Huston
Mrs. Austen: Phyllida Law
Edward Austen-Knight: Pip Torrens
Madame Bigeon: Sylvie Herbert
John Plumptre: Tom Hiddleston
Anna Lefroy: Sally Tatum
Rev. Clarke: Jason Watkins
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