Reviewed by Maitland McDonagh

Historical "what if?" stories are a great lark for devoted fans. But like the far cleverer SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE (1998), this lavishly appointed film spins a grand, doomed love from the loose threads of a great writer's life and then suggests that this imaginary romance is the source of that greatness. Jane Austen deserves better than to be subordinated to her own creation, the spirited Lizzy Bennet.

Steventon, Hampshire, 1795: Twenty-year-old Jane (Anne Hathaway) is a spirited trial to her long-suffering mother (Julie Walters), who despairs of getting both her daughters safely married and out of genteel poverty. Elder and more pliant daughter Cassandra (Anna Maxwell Martin) is already safely engaged to respectable young clergyman Robert Fowle (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), though their marriage must wait until he returns from a lengthy post overseas. But Jane is too clever for her own good and is insufficiently sensible to hide it; worse still, her father, Reverend Austen (James Cromwell), positively encourages her flights of fantasy, notably the notion that she might one day make her own living as a lady novelist. For all her faults, Jane catches the eye of wan, awkward Mr. Wisley (Laurence Fox), the favorite nephew of haughty Lady Gresham (Maggie Smith at her most imperious, which is very imperious indeed). One of the Reverend Austen's students, the unprepossessing John Warren (Leo Bill), also nurses a crush on Jane. But neither can hold a candle to Jane's real-life Mr. Darcy, a dashing, impudent, worldly and penniless lawyer named Tom Lefroy (Scottish actor James McAvoy), whose wealthy and oh-so-stuffy uncle has punished him with banishment from London to the home of his country cousins. Jane and Tom initially hit it off like chalk and cheese, but beneath their superficial differences lie identically willful, unconventional natures. Since the real Jane Austen never married, it goes without saying that fate and custom will come between these bright young things. But heartache leads her to begin work on what will become Pride and Prejudice, the novel that made her reputation.

Hathaway and McAvoy bring some genuine, if discreet, sparks to their secret romance, but there's something fundamentally lifeless about director Julian Jarrold's shallow gloss on Pride and Prejudice, from a screenplay by Sarah Williams and Kevin Hood. The film only really pulls the heartstrings in its 20-years-later coda, though starry-eyed young Jane's visit to successful novelist Ann Radcliffe (Helen McCrory), who warns of the difficulties of being a writer and a wife, hits a beautifully astringent note.