The occasion of a new Jane Austen adaptation on TV or film is often accompanied by strong words of disapproval from those who revere her work. Her ardent fans (‘Janeites,’ as they’re often called, not always respectfully) closely examine each on-screen version to ensure it stays true to the author’s spirit. They often come away disappointed.
I have no idea what her fan base will make of American writer-director Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship, which is loosely adapted from Lady Susan, an early short novel in that Austen almost certainly wrote while still in her teens. But as someone who admires Austen, and finds her work sturdy enough to withstand the liberties that inevitably come with adaptations, I rather liked it.
The film gives a starring role to the estimable Kate Beckinsale, a splendid British actress who may have spent too much of her career in Hollywood action films that were frankly unworthy of her. As Lady Susan Vernon Martin, she’s a scheming egotist and an unapologetic flirt; upon her arrival at any number of imposing homes, the ladies of the house virtually fling themselves between their husbands (or sons) and this calculating seductress.
Lady Susan is unlike Austen’s other heroines in that she never troubles to mask her baser instincts with courtesy or euphemism; she has an eye for men, she is constant need of money and is desperate to marry off her 16-year-old daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark). No-one would mistake Lady Susan for likable, but she’s eminently watchable and entertaining.
Whit Stillman is certainly qualified to tackle this material. He’s not a prodigious film-maker; and this is only his fifth movie in 26 years. As a writer he specialises in talkative, witty comedies of manners about privileged people. And he’s long been a bona fide Austen fan: his first feature film, Metropolitan (1990), was peopled with young New York socialites who gleefully quoted from her work.
The comedy in Love & Friendship is rooted in disconnections: its costumes and country houses look straight out of Austen, and its characters speak with the polite formality one expects from her work; only when you catch the selfishness or absurdity in what they’re actually do you realise it’s all a delicate joke.
Beckinsale is unquestionably the main attraction here, but she’s ably served by a fine supporting cast. Chloe Sevigny, as Lady Susan’s American confidante Alicia, is a capable foil. Jemma Redgrave and James Fleet play the kind, decent de Courcys, whose young son Reginald is a prime target for the predatory Lady Susan. And then there’s Tom Bennett, a new name to me, who is wildly funny as the grinning, heroically stupid (but rich!) Sir James Martin, who has doltish designs on the hapless Federica. Sir James is best summed up by a scene when at dinner, he eyes the peas on his plate and muses: “Tiny green balls. What are they called?”
There may be a few too many characters in all this, and two-thirds of the way through its brief running time, Love & Friendship runs out of steam for a spell. But Stillman wraps up the story brilliantly, neatly and amusingly. One imagines even Jane Austen, who had a certain contrary streak herself, might have approved.
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