Do we need yet another film version of a Jane Austen story? Before watching Whit Stillman’s wonderful Love & Friendship, I would’ve said no. After all, can audiences get anything new from a millionth rendition of a Jane Austen tale? Because of the saturation of Austen-related films during the 1990s, audiences can be forgiven if they approach Love & Friendship with wariness. But Stillman wisely eschews the more notable Austen works like Pride & Prejudice or Emma, and instead chooses to film a more obscure work, Lady Susan.
Austen’s Lady Susan is an epistolary novel, so Whitman – who wrote the screenplay on top of his directing and producing duties – had a rather daunting task: how to pull away from the novella’s format, expanding on the fictional letters, creating dialogue and scenes, while remaining faithful to Austen’s legendary wit and humor. He succeeds by mining in Lady Susan picking up some of Austen’s funniest and most savage social commentary. Those more familiar with Pride & Prejudice or Emma will remember that a hallmark of Austen is her ability to skewer social class hierarchy and gender roles with cutting, razor-sharp comedy.
Another bonus for Whitman’s choice of Lady Susan over the more iconic Austen work, is that its title character is a different kind of Austen heroine. In fact, she’s no heroine at all. Throughout the film, Lady Susan is a cruel, manipulative, and conniving character. Unlike Elinor Dashwood, Elizabeth Bennet, or even Emma Woodhouse, Lady Susan Vernon is a terrible person. But like any great anti-heroine, she is still compelling to watch. The plot, like all of Austen, is concerned with marriage – particularly, how marriage can mean independence and freedom for women, especially women of reduced economic stations. Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale) is a widow who is on the hunt for a husband for herself and for her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark). She’s not looking for love, instead, she’s looking for financial security, as the death of her husband leaves her almost-penniless.
While staying at her in-laws’ home, she sets her sights on the handsome, but much younger, Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel), who is immediately smitten. Who can blame him? Lady Susan is gorgeous and funny, and puts on a good show of being a kind and attentive person. Her sister-in-law, Catherine (Emme Greenwell) sees through Lady Susan’s machinations and wants nothing more than to have Lady Susan banished from the Vernon estate. The complication (there’s always a complication) is that Catherine has developed a soft spot for the brow-beaten Frederica. Catherine’s parents (James Fleet and Jemma Redgrave) are also concerned and fear that their son will marry the notorious Susan, and plunge the family into social ruin and disgrace.
But Lady Susan sees these problems as minor roadblocks, and barrels through with her plans to have herself and Frederica married and financially secure. To that end, she nurtures the unrequited love that the wealthy Sir James Martin (a hilarious Tom Bennett) has for Frederica. The problem is he’s a class-A idiot (Reginald calls him a “pea brain” – and for some reason, the insult doesn’t sound juvenile or ridiculous). Frederica doesn’t want to have anything to do with Sir Martin, but her mother doesn’t care – love isn’t something that Lady Susan is preoccupied with. Someone as scheming and duplicitous as Lady Susan needs an accomplice. Enter Mrs. Alicia Johnson (Chloë Sevigny), Lady Susan’s dashing American friend who joins in on the fun, despite her husband’s disapproval.
Because Lady Susan is a novella, Whitman didn’t have to do as much pruning as Deborah Moggach did when she had to squeeze all of Pride & Prejudice into two hours (as opposed to the nearly six-hour version produced by BBC/A&E). As a result of the brevity of the story (as well as its relative simplicity), Love & Friendship is breezy and moves at a brisk pace. Some of the stylistic choices Whitman makes are interesting – when introducing the characters, he sets up vignettes with the names and roles of each character – sort of like the opening sequence of a TGIF sitcom. It’s a great visual gag, and its an efficient way of getting a lot of backstory and exposition out of the way. And as with any British costume drama, the sets are stunning and the costumes are beautiful.
As with any Austen-adapted film, the casting is integral, and Kate Beckinsale is wonderful. Interestingly enough, Lady Susan isn’t the first time the actress essayed an Austen role: in 1996 she played the title character in an ITV adaption of Emma. Because the two characters share so many of the same traits, it feels as if Beckinsale’s interpretation of Lady Susan is akin to what would it be like if Emma Woodhouse was middle-aged. As Lady Susan, Beckinsale does a magnificent job of playing up the character’s odious qualities – but because she’s so wily and cunning, it’s a joy to watch her, even when she’s being horrible to the people around her.
And though this is Beckinsale’s shining hour, the rest of the cast all do some fine work. Sevigny, sticks out with her American accent, but is sly fun, and as her husband, Stephen Fry does a lot with what is essentially a cameo. And Tom Bennett is a comic wonder as the stupid Sir Martin, easily stealing his scenes, by playing up not only the stupidity, but the genial qualities of the character, which make him at once laughable and likable.
What Love & Friendship proves is that even with multiple adaptations of varying degrees of fidelity and success, Jane Austen’s oeuvre can still be mined for some great entertainment. It also highlights just how funny Jane Austen is – it’s clear that writers such as Nancy Meyers and Charles Shyer, Woody Allen, Nora Ephron, Wendy Wasserstein, Lena Dunham, and Rob Reiner all have been influenced by Austen. Despite writing romantic comedies in the late 18th century, Austen’s interests as well as her sense of humor remain relevant and current.