Film Review | Love & Friendship

Chloë Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale are fast friends in Whit Stillman’s adaptation of an early Jane Austen novella (4/5)

Teodor Reljic
4 July 2016, 9:43am
Chloë Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale are fast friends in Whit Stillman’s adaptation of an early Jane Austen novella
Chloë Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale are fast friends in Whit Stillman’s adaptation of an early Jane Austen novella
Among the myriad adaptations of English literary classics, the novels of Jane Austen appear to be particularly germane for appropriation by either the BBC or Hollywood. Providing ample ‘posh entertainment’ fodder to fill up airspace on British television, while playing the same – nostalgic and escapist – nerve as Downton Abbey for international audiences.

The appeal of these perennial social comedies – usually centered around women in Austen’s Regency Era Britain, and in particular their negotiation of romantic and economic realities – is not only evident in the fact that the books have never gone out of print. The fact that their corresponding films continue to gain pop culture traction shows that the characters and mores that populate Austen’s narratives are not just of academic interest.

It is perhaps the sheer breadth of these adaptations that has led to director Whit Stillman (The Last Days of Disco) to plumb deeper into the recesses of Austen’s oeuvre, plucking out an early, posthumous novella – Lady Susan – to adapt into the effervescent social comedy Love & Friendship.

Aiming to shelter herself from unsavoury rumours about her romantic habits, beautiful young widow Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) pays a visit to her inlaws’ estate, and soon decides to make it her mission to secure a husband for her reluctant young daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark).

However, her true intentions – which she only reveals to her equally unscrupulous American friend Alicia Johnson (Chloë Sevigny) – are far more self-serving, and it becomes clear that Susan will even sacrifice her daughter’s happiness to secure financial and romantic satisfaction.

Into this whirlwind swoop in Susan’s intelligent and charismatic former brother-in-law Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel), the insufferable Sir James Martin and the most intense object of Susan’s desire, the ‘divinely handsome’ but married Lord Manwaring (Lochlann O’Mearáin).

Austen fans will likely find the unrepentant flirt Lady Susan to be a jarring presence in the complex but otherwise ethically sound trajectory of the bulk of the author’s later and better known works. Characters like her exist in Austen’s fiction, to be sure, but they’re often framed as either antagonists or secondary players whose scheming is diminished by parallel and more prominent characters.

Instead, Susan is treated as a destructive but compelling protagonist, and it’s a challenge that Beckinsale leaps into with relish. It’s a canny career choice for the British actress, who has transitioned somewhat uncomfortably from strait-laced period dramas to sexpot roles throughout her career. Lady Susan lets her play into both of those broad categories, and she simmers with sexuality while remaining firmly entrenched in the social confines of Austen’s world.

Stillman’s jocular approach to the material also helps sugar the pill somewhat. Introducing his characters as ‘dramatis personae’, with corresponding ironic captions, declares his intentions with the tone of the film pretty early on.

Immaculately photographed and costumed, Stillman’s film is a reminder that while Austen’s literary reputation still inspires reverence, the particulars of her work can afford to be very irreverent indeed.

Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...