Love & Friendship
LOVE & FRIENDSHIP, Austen adaptation, rated PG, Center for Contemporary Arts, 3.5 chiles
You could make a case for Whit Stillman as the Jane Austen of his generation. In his “Yuppie Trilogy,” composed of the movies Metropolitan (1990), Barcelona (1994), and The Last Days of Disco (1998), he observes the social mores and peccadilloes of young urban sophisticates and their earnestly intellectual conversations (sometimes on the subject of Jane Austen) with the same dry wit and cool dissecting eye that Austen cast on the rural gentry of her time and place. So the marriage of Stillman and Austen for Love & Friendship, his adaptation of her comic novella Lady Susan, is not as great a leap as it initially might appear. Stillman, incidentally, has pulled a title switch.
Love & Freindship (sic — spelling was apparently not Austen’s strong suit) is an epistolary novel she wrote at the ripe age of fourteen, probably to be read aloud as a family entertainment. Lady Susan, also written in the epistolary form, is a comparatively mature work, dating to around 1794, when she was about eighteen. It was not published, however, until almost 80 years later. One can only assume that the title substitution was to give the movie the “this and that” pairing cadence familiar to Jane Austen fans from her more famous works.
This delicious comedy of manners has the exquisite flavor of a scrumptious high tea at Harrods. At the center of it all is Lady Susan, played to conniving perfection by Kate Beckinsale. It’s a performance that ought to have Oscar hanging around her trailer door, if Oscar weren’t such a snob about comedy. He should heed the wisdom of the great Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean, who is said to have remarked on his deathbed, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”
Lady Susan is a beautiful widow whose husband had the poor taste to die and leave her in aristocratically straitened circumstances, complicated by 18th-century British laws restricting a woman’s right to inherit. Those circumstances force her to begin shopping in earnest for a rich husband. To execute this campaign, she invites herself as a houseguest at Churchill, the estate of her brother-in-law Charles Vernon (Justin Edwards) and his wife, Catherine (Emma Greenwell).
Lady Susan, described as “the most accomplished flirt in all England,” has little trouble wrapping men around her little finger, and she soon has Catherine’s hunky and wealthy brother Reginald De Courcy (Xavier Samuel of The Twilight Saga: Eclipse), some years her junior, following her around like a puppy. Women are less susceptible to her charms, however. Catherine is horrified by the scheming intruder, and Lady Lucy Manwaring (Jenn Murray), whose “divinely attractive” husband Lord Manwaring (Lochlann O’Mearáin) serves as Lady Susan’s bit on the side, is positively apoplectic. “If she was going to be so jealous,” Lady Susan remarks, “she shouldn’t have married such a charming man.”
The one woman who warms to the lady is Alicia Johnson (Chloë Sevigny, who previously teamed up with Beckinsale previously in The Last Days of Disco), an American expatriate. Alicia’s elderly, goutridden British husband Mr. Johnson (Stephen Fry), however, has no use for Lady Susan, and threatens to send his wife back to Connecticut if she continues to keep company with her. “What a mistake you made marrying him,” Lady Susan sighs. “Too old to be governable, too young to die.” Austen adds a complication when Lady Susan’s mousy daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) runs away from school and arrives on her mother’s adopted doorstep. The school won’t take her back, probably because of unpaid tuition bills. There’s nothing to do but to marry her off, and fortune provides the perfect candidate, the sublimely silly and irreproachable wealthy Sir James Martin (played hilariously by a Monty Pythonesque Tom Bennett). To her mother’s great exasperation, however, Frederica, resists the match. She likes him well enough, but not as a husband. “Marriage is for your whole life!” she protests — to which her mother drily retorts, “Not in my experience.”
Wit is often present in Jane Austen adaptations, but it generally plays a supporting role to romance. Here, it’s front and center. Stillman and his marvelous cast have more fun than should be legal with all this wonderful material. Not having read the Austen novella, I can’t say how much of this lively cavalcade of comedy comes from the source and how much is rendered by Stillman’s hand, but it’s unlike any Austen you’ve been accustomed to. It may be worth noting that several members of Stillman’s British cast recently appeared in the Austen pastiche, Pride & Prejudice
& Zombies. There’s no need of undead flesh-eaters here; Lady Susan takes care of the monster franchise with her scheming, manipulating machinations. And in spite of everything, romance is served, in its way, in the end.
Hats off to marriage: Chloë Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale