Love & Friend­ship

LOVE & FRIEND­SHIP, Austen adap­ta­tion, rated PG, Cen­ter for Con­tem­po­rary Arts, 3.5 chiles

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - — Jonathan Richards

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

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