As the occasionally inspired Boston Globe film critic Mark Feeney pointed out: ‘Once the implicit aim of biography was to uplift now it is to unveil.’ And so it is that we reach the point where it seems OK to release a film about the secret love life of British literature’s most celebrated spinster. Her many fans will be horrified.
You might be surprised to learn that Jane Austen (played beautifully by Anne Hathaway) owed her success to a man, a certain Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy) a full time cad, hedonist and part time lawyer in the latter part of the 18th century. It is well documented that Lefroy, the eldest son of Irish aristocrats who would go on to become the most hated Chief Justice of Ireland, (he was an arch conservative who remained unmoved by the worst sufferings of the potato famine), had a flirtation with Austen. But, if director Julian Kinky Boots Jarrold and TV writer Kevin Hood’s film is to be believed, Lefroy helped shape Austen’s progress from precocious diarist to genius satirist.
Propelled through its excessive running time by excellent performances from a cast that includes Julie Walters, the late great Ian Richardson, Maggie Smith and James Cromwell and a very generous smattering of some of Austen’s best lines, the film hammers home the lilied message - that true art comes at the cost of great personal sacrifice - with all the finesse of an unlined frock coat. This is as dreary as period dramas get.