When you look at Jane Austen’s novels through the movies that have been adapted from them, Austen’s world seems frivolous and saccharine, like something out of a Hallmark movie, in which the romance has been bled out, neutered, tamed beyond any semblance of passion. Not all of the adaptations are guilty of this, but inevitably, all of them contribute to our view of Jane Austen as a “lady writer” concerned with only the most inconsequential matters. Real readers of Jane Austen, on the other hand, know better. They know that Jane Austen’s wit and acumen remain matchless, that her precision of language continues to surprise even the most perennial of readers. That’s why Love and Friendship (which is based on the novel Lady Susan) is such a breath of fresh air. It was directed and written by Whit Stillman, and if you’ve followed Stillman’s career, this match seems a long time coming.
I became a fan of Stillman several years ago when I watched Metropolitan (1990), a film about New York debutantes living in an age that has outgrown, or perhaps de-classed itself out of a need for such traditions. The characters in Metropolitan speak in complete sentences, voicing strong opinions about art, politics, culture, and the dynamics of their particularly alien (to most viewers) social structure. Sounds very Jane Austen.
Love and Friendship concerns an opportunistic and devious woman named Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale), who comes to visit the family of her late husband, ostensibly out of a desire to gratify his memory, but really because she’s in dire straights. Susan remarks to her teenage daughter, Frederica, “We don’t live; we visit.” Whatever she must do, Susan will do, to ensure a roof over her head and some level of comfort and respectability. What viewer can resist Susan’s ruthless opportunism, and the clever and skillful ways in which she ingratiates herself with various members of the household (particularly the kind-hearted and gullible young Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel), who falls in love with her?)
Love and Friendship is, finally, a Jane Austen adaptation with teeth. Stillman respects, indeed adores, Austen’s writing enough to adapt it honestly and faithfully. (I haven’t read Lady Susan, but I mean that Stillman gets the Austen spirit and humor and tone more than most, and remains true to it throughout the film.) There’s an early scene where DeCourcy’s parents are reading a letter from their daughter, who’s distraught that her brother is associating with Susan, a woman with a reputation. The elderly Mr. DeCourcy keeps paraphrasing the letter for his wife, whose eyes are strained from a cold, until his wife begs him to simply read it to her; but then he does so quite literally, naming every mark of punctuation with the dedication of a telegram. “Stop! My eyes have recovered,” she cries, “I can read it myself.”
Later, when Susan and her American confidant Alicia are walking, they are greeted by a gentleman who keeps trying to communicate with Susan. She rebuffs him as though he were propositioning her. “Did you know him?” Alicia asks. “Of course,” replies Lady Susan. “I would never speak that way to a stranger.”
Kate Beckinsale plays Susan with pluck and relish: She has a natural frothiness. She can be sweet as icing and cold as stone in the same breath. Chloe Sevigny, as the American Alicia, turns in an equally funny performance. Alicia herself is a devoted opportunist, and you have to admire both of these women, using the gifts they have to survive in a world that fabricates hypocrisies to exclude them. Their friendship acts as a kind of center for the movie: Susan continually narrates her latest successes and failures to Alicia, who serves as a willing accomplice whenever she can, but who must protect herself from her suspicious and imposing husband (Stephen Fry), who keeps threatening to send her back to the States.
What’s perhaps most amusing and fascinating about this story is Susan’s own caddishness toward her daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark). She wants to aid her daughter’s future, but never at a cost to her own designs on marriage and social-climbing. She even encourages her daughter’s marriage to a bumbling fool named Sir James (Tom Bennett), an awkward, foolish man whom Reginald describes as a peabrain. When in a discussion about the Ten Commandments, Sir James mistakenly refers to them as the Twelve Commandments. Reginald’s father corrects him: “I believe there were only ten.” “Oh wonderful,” James replies, quite sincerely asking, “Which two shall we leave off?”
The Commandments play a significant role in Love and Friendship. Susan invokes them at her convenience, mainly the fifth one, about honoring your parents, whenever she needs to manipulate her daughter into carrying out her own wishes. When Frederica asks a curate about this commandment, he provides his own interpretation: Our parents have cultivated a beautiful mansion for us, not a savage wilderness, and we must honor them for it. But it’s clear that the world of Love and Friendship is a savage wilderness indeed: a place where opportunity and survival are rewarded, if only you can use cunning and feminine wiles to achieve them.
With Emma Greenwell, James Fleet, Jemma Redgrave, Justin Edwards, and Jenn Murray.