True and falseWilt Stillman manages an impressive balance in Love & Friendship: staying true to Austen’s material in terms of structure and aesthetic, but also bringing his own contemporary comedic sensibilities into the mix
I’ve long harboured a soft spot for Jane Austen. As far removed as the author’s depictions of the strait-laced, puritanical Georgian society of late 18th century England might seem from my own history and reality, there is a certain timelessness about her works that enables them to transcend their particular contextual boundaries to a great degree. Of course, Austen does dwell extensively on the finery and frippery of her era—enormous manses, extravagant gowns, servants scuttling in and out in the background, and those rigid dining-table manners, to name a few—and she might appear, on the surface, to be obsessed with the petty concerns of the rich and mostly useless. But look closely, and you’ll realise that as much as she indulges in the frivolous trappings of that society, she is actually, with great subtlety, wit and flair, skewering them at the same time. These satirical jabs are never more evident than in her portrayals of the lives of women at a time when their desires and individualities were consistently suppressed by the rules of social decorum and the all-encompassing need to Find A Husband—constraints that her heroines were always quietly struggling against in some form or the other.
In this regard, Austen was a woman beyond her time: her work wasn’t just a catalogue of the fashions and habits of her time, but more a dig into the human condition at large, into relationships and behaviours shaped by the competing forces of romance and pragmatism, self and society—universal themes all, and still relevant to this day. Little wonder then that she has inspired such a range of adaptations on TV and the big screen over time, particularly during the 90s. Haters might pooh-pooh that these are too slow-paced and formal, but personally, I find that restraint vastly appealing—there’s such a churning of emotional complexity and conflict under that shiny surface of propriety, and so much to be gleaned from not just what is said indirectly, but also what isn’t said at all.
That lengthy prologue should serve to reveal my preferences, and to warn those who don’t share them that the new Love & Friendship, based on one of Austen’s unfinished stories titled Lady Susan—originally written as a series of letter exchanges—might not be your cup of tea. In which case, you’d be right to stop reading this. But if you do enjoy the odd dip into period dramas and drawing-room politics, director Whit Stillman (Metropolitan, Damsels in Distress) has something truly exciting in store for you because Love & Friendship isn’t just any old Austen adaptation. Stillman manages an impressive balance: while, on one hand, he stays true to the material in terms of structure and aesthetic, he also pokes fun at its conventions, bringing his own contemporary comedic sensibilities into the mix—a mark of a real fan, and a winning combination. The story revolves around the recently-widowed but none-too-grief-stricken Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale), a beautiful and unapologetically self-serving charmer, described by one character as “the most accomplished flirt in all England.” Yes, Lady Susan has acquired a touch of notoriety for her ways with men; many have fallen prey to her allure, some even disregarding previous attachments in the process. Not surprising then that she’s not exactly popular among the ladies; except for her BFF, the American-born Mrs Johnson (Chloë Sevigny), who appears to derive great amusement from her friend’s exploits, Lady Susan has few gal pals to speak of—not that she minds much.
Indeed, there is the far more important business of securing suitable (read: rich) husbands for both herself and daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark). The money left behind by the late Mr Vernon is presumably running out; “our circumstances are so precarious that we don’t live—we visit,” she says at one point. And it’s on one such visit to her brother-in-law’s house that Susan comes across Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel), young, good-looking, and more to the point, heir to a fortune. But there’s also Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), a bit of a doofus, but blessed with deep pockets, to consider. And in corner three is the “divinely attractive” (according to Susan) but very much married Mr Manwaring (Lochlann O’ Mearáin). Over the course of the film, we watch as our heroine (or anti-heroine more like) expertly manipulates them, and others in the periphery, to carve out the most advantageous deal for herself, leaving behind the usual wreckage in her wake.
You might not agree with everything Lady Susan says or does—she can be a selfish b***h of the first order at the best of times—but you also can’t help but marvel at how well she’s learned to navigate around the strictures placed on her by society. Options for women back then, widows even more so, were painfully limited after all, given that they generally could not inherit property and were discouraged from working—a premise that basically fueled six whole series of Downton Abbey—so that survival was contingent on making the right match. So while her power over men might not translate to power in the real sense, it’s satisfying to see that at least she’s not submitting quietly, and has no delusions about her situation. She uses what she has—her looks, her charms and that devious mind—to get what she wants, and there’s a certain delight in watching her bludgeon her way through the mores of such an oppressive society. She isn’t vain; she’s practical. The only time we ever glimpse any softness in Lady Susan would be when it comes to Mrs Johnson, as loyal and intimate a connection as could be; love and romance might have been brought down a couple of pegs in the film, but it doesn’t appear to have lost its faith in friendship.
And though adaptations of Austen (and the source material itself) have always had elements of satire and farce incorporated—think Mrs Bennett from the numerous Pride & Prejudices or one MrPhilip Elton from Emma—but never has humour been as emphatically infused as it is here. Stillman packs in funny, offbeat little touches throughout, whether it’s the quirky introductory title cards bearing the characters’ names and vital info; the repetition of certain portions of dialogues to bring out the artifice in people’s conversations; or the overt hilarity of Mr Martin’s denseness, among others. He’s fortunate to have actors who are able to embody that kind of half-serious, half-mocking tone of the film: Beckinsale, who has long been stuck doing thankless action films or period pieces that haven’t really allowed her much room to shine, is absolutely terrific here as the charismatic schemer, likeable and contemptible all at once. She’s helped by a solid rest of the cast including Sevigny (who has previously shared the screen with her in another Stillman film, The Last Days of Disco), Clark and Samuel, complete with a cheeky little appearance by Stephen Fry. But the Scene-Stealing Prize has to go to Bennett who is just plain brilliant, using his voice and body to great, and very unexpected, comedic effect.
Love & Friendship is the sort of thing I can see myself going back to time and again over the years in the tradition of other Austen films. Speaking of the lady herself, would she approve of Stillman’s adaptation had she been here to see it? I like to think she’d have been laughing out loud.