It’s easy to forget when you’re watching the plethora of Jane Austen adaptations in existence, and they are legion and growing like topsy by the second, that the author of Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility was a woman of fierce intelligence, rapier wit and keen satirical inclination.
In an age of rampant respectability, hers was the seditious voice of deliciously treasonous questioning, a gaggle of subversive thought and voice that probed, critiqued and made merry with late 18th century aristocratic life.
And all with an inherent comic sensibility that finally finds its long-lost full-throated voice in Love & Friendship, based on Austen’s novella Lady Susan and adapted by the supremely-talented Whit Stillman.
This is the Austen adaptation we have all been waiting for.
It does, of course, have the expected period look and feel in place, the very things you would expect in any period piece worth its salt.
But with the necessary tropes in place, Stillman goes to town, several towns and estates in fact, making absolute merry with the tale of Lady Susan, played with blissfully witty vivacity by Kate Beckinsale in top form, a “grieving” widow of impoverished means who masks her paucity of worldly goods and abode with a singular ability to ingratiate herself into the homes of family and friends all the while observing, but only just mind you, the social proprieties of the day.
Hers is a world defined by one thing and one thing only – doing what is best for Lady Susan, and so while she scandalously conducts an affair with the tall, strong and silent Lord Manwaring (Lochlann O’Mearáin), leaving the highly-strung Lady Manwaring (Jenn Murray) a blubbering mess consoled only by her guardian Mr Johnson (Steven Fry), she is plotting to find husbands of means for both herself and her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark).
A clever lady of ready wit and deadly oneliner cloaked in the superficially most socially appropriate of language, Lady Susan is a study in deceptive contrasts – if she says she would never resort to something then she most likely has and is, or if she decries a particular tactic or strategy as gauche or beneath her, you can bet your fine English estate with manicured lawns that she is currently engaged in just such a practice.
As brought to life by Beckinsale, Lady Susan is a fantastically over the top creation of lies, self-interest and inherent selfishness masquerading as the very model of a modern, well-mannered, butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-her-articulate mouth lady.
And that is where much of the off-the-leash humour that giddily skips, cavorts and makes merry throughout Love & Friendship finds its genesis in a character that for all her narcissistic tendencies, and they are considerable, is still delightfully appealing and amusing.
A great deal of humour stems too from the foppish Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), an hilarious blithering idiot of a man – he is described in the film in the lingo of the time as a “rattle”, a term that pretty much describes itself – whose main virtue, in Lady Susan’s eyes at least is his considerable fortune.
He is the comic clown of the show, a man so unable to grasp common concepts and social niceties that it is a good thing he is well-heeled or he would be a very foolish pauper indeed.
What drives Love & Friendship, apart from the humorous blitzkrieg that is Lady Susan, who lays waste in the most genteel way possible to all around her, is the ability of women such as her sister-in-law Catherine Vernon (Emma Greenwell) and her mother Lady DeCourcy (Jemma Redgrave) to see right through her, and the inability of men such as Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel) and her brother-in-law Charles (Justin Edwards) to see anything but good in her.
She is like a beguiling pheromone made flesh who can weave magic with her words and fey, observant manner sufficient to convince most men, with the exception thankfully of Sir Reginald DeCourcy (James Fleet), father of Catherine and Reginald, that her intentions are pure and she means only good fortune for all she encounters.
That is not at all the case naturally and it is only because of the women around the men – save for her best friend American Alicia Johnson (Chloë Sevigny) who has her own selfish needs and interests that cause to find a soul mate in a person most women despise (though naturally in polite society not openly) – that anyone emerges unscathed from Lady Susan’s avaricious clutches.
Love & Friendship has the sort of ending you would expect of an Austen novel, with most people getting what they want but Stillman, who frankly should be in charge of all period adaptations, not just Austen’s, until the end of time, has such fun getting them all there that you barely begrudge that adherence to formula.
This is Austen as I suspect she herself would have wanted herself on the big screen had she ever encountered such a thing.
Ribald, witty, seditious, gossipy and naughty, and yet oh so respectably cloaked in all manner of carefully-worded deed (not so much the thoughts), the film is a glorious, witty romp through late eighteenth century that spares no one, least of all its villain/heroine Lady Susan who is the all the cloying self-interest of the upper classes rolled into one vastly-entertaining, beautifully-appointed woman.
Set free from the shackles of earnest but well-production, Love & Friendship is Austen off the chain in the most uninhibited, brilliantly funny way possible, a miasma of witticisms, sharp social satire and comedy of manners that takes no prisoners, refuses to play by the rules and is ridiculously and joyously fun to watch and marvel at as a result.
This is not your grandmother’s Austen and we all the better for it. Thank you Wilt Stillman!