Whit Stillman (The Last Days of Disco) directs his own adaptation of an unfinished Jane Austen novella, titled Lady Susan, in Love & Friendship; a period comedy about matchmaking and heartbreak.
Set in the opulent drawing rooms of eighteenth-century English society, Love & Friendship focuses on the delicious scheming and manipulations of a beautiful widow, Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale). While waiting for social chatter about a personal indiscretion to pass, she takes up temporary residence at her in-laws’ estate. During her time there, the intelligent, flirtatious and highly egotistical Lady Vernon is on a mission to find a husband for herself and her long-suffering daughter, Frederica. She is aided and abetted by a loyal friend, Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny), an American Loyalist exiled from Connecticut. But two young men, the handsome Reginald DeCourcy (Australia’s Xavier Samuel) and the silly, cheerful and very rich Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett) severely complicate their plans.
Lady Susan was written in the mid 1790s when Jane Austen was about to start working on her first version of Sense and Sensibility, which was called Elinor and Marianne. Both were originally produced in letter form, when Austen was aged about 20. The attraction of adapting Austen’s early novella concerning the clever and triumphant Lady Susan was the hope of adding another Austen volume to her great mature works, although in film form. Lady Susan was the title Austen’s nephew had given her untitled manuscript when her family finally allowed it to be published half a century after her death. In the case of the movie, which involved more characters and a larger canvas, the title is derived from one of Austen’s youthful short stories.
Kate Beckinsale owns the role of the key character and pot-stirrer with a genuinely disingenuous performance. Her propensity to twist men, in particular, around her little finger appears to know no bounds. Her dextrous use of language sees her extricate herself from even the most uncomfortable position. Mind you, with so many characters it takes a while to work out who’s who in the zoo. Respective names and positions are literally written on the screen (some quite comically), but it’s still hardly a straightforward exercise to join the dots, so to speak.
And then there are giant leaps in terms of plot development, so concentration is required to keep up with what just happened off camera. That may delight some, but it is bound to infuriate others. Regardless, there is no doubting the shrewdness in the writing and the plotting – far-fetched and oh so cheeky, to be sure, but also delightful.
As with so many period pieces, the architecture, interiors and costuming are exquisite. The last word though surely must go to Lady Susan: “Heaven help us if a woman so steeped in manipulation and subterfuge decides to play with you!” Rated PG, Love & Friendship scores a 7 to 7½ out of 10.
Director: Whit Stillman
Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Chloë Sevigny, Xavier Samuel, Stephen Fry
Release Date: 21 July 2016
Rating: PG – Mild themes
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television