Arts Review, Movies
Whit Stillman, director & script based on Lady Susan by Jane Austen
Starring: Kate Beckinsale (Lady Susan Vernon), Chloe Sevigny (Alicia Johnson), Xavier Samuel (Reginald DeCourcy), Stephen Fry (Mr. Johnson), Emma Greenwell (Catherine Vernon), Morfydd Clark (Frederica Vernon), James Fleet (Reginald DeCourcy), Jemma Redgrave (Lady De Courcy), Tom Bennett (Sir James Martin), Justin Edwards (Charles Vernon), Jenn Murray (Lady Lucy Manwaring)
Whit Stillman and Jane Austen embrace with rapier wit, subversive sexuality and mordant satire in the entirely successful cinematic delight Love & Friendship. The duo—soul mates whose caress transgresses the centuries—appreciate the difficult lives upper and middle-class women led in England during the Regency period. Lady Susan Vernon, a character first imagined by Austen in an epistolary work, which precedes her initial published novel Sense and Sensibility, is such a figure: widowed, without income, who has to prosper in a society fraught with perils. While maintaining the proper veneer of societal restraint, the remarkable Lady Susan has to devise ways to get herself and her daughter Frederica married to men of wealth and aristocratic lineage.
It’s never an easy task for someone to arrange for the right marriage, as Austen so brilliantly explicated throughout her oeuvre but most particularly in the masterpiece Pride and Prejudice. Her Lady Susan is a protagonist in Austen’s juvenilia—not an Elizabeth Bennet. It took more than two centuries for Whit Stillman to fully realise Austen’s conceit through his funny, precise screenplay and by casting Kate Beckinsale to play Lady Susan. The term “monstre sacré” may not be the perfect terminology for this willful, gorgeous seductress but it will have to do. Audiences will find themselves cheering her on as she manipulates her upper crust relatives and friends to achieve success for herself and her daughter.
Beckinsale plays Susan perfectly. She holds back from making her grotesque or campy. You see how she shamelessly uses her beauty and charm to make men adore her while keeping women befuddled by her absolutely correct understanding of how society worked in the late 18th century in England. Joining her in this witty deconstruction of Regency society is Chloe Sevigny, playing Lady Susan’s best friend Alicia Johnson, a wealthy American married to a prominent member of the British gentry. The two played together brilliantly in Stillman’s best film up to now, The Last Days of Disco (1998), and enjoy an easy rapport in Love & Friendship. Their cynical, frostily comic exchanges make explicit Stillman’s take on Austen’s themes.
It’s rare for a film with as heartless a lead character as Lady Susan to win over critics and, I suspect, audiences. Stillman has achieved a truly unique triumph with Love & Friendship. I urge you to see it.
Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus
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