A witty adaptation of Jane Austen’s Lady Susan, Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship is a sassy parody of Regency manners.
Desperately Seeking Susanby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Crisply enunciating Jane Austen’s bons mots, Kate Beckinsale is superb as Lady Susan, the scheming heroine of the ironically titled Love & Friendship. Whit Stillman has adapted Austen’s early novella Lady Susan into a sharp comedy of Regency manners and retitled it with another of her little-known works.
Lady Susan Vernon is beautiful but she is a widow in her thirties without a fortune and she amorally pursues wealth and status through marriage – the only security for women. She is known as the biggest flirt in London. And, it turns out, that’s the reason for her hasty departure from her stay at the Mainwaring family estate. Her subsequent unwelcome descent on her relatives, the Vernons (James Fleet and Emma Greenwell), throws them into alarm as they fear her talent for disruption.
When her 16-year-old daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) unexpectedly arrives too, having been expelled from school, it means a rival in Lady Susan’s play for the affections of the eligible young cousin who is also staying with them, Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel). Without a fortune, Lady Susan’s future income lies in matchmaking, both for herself and her daughter. The suitor Lady Susan has lined up for an unwilling Frederica, the wealthy Sir James Martin (a scene-stealing comic turn from Tom Bennett) then turns up. He is an amiable idiot and, as Lady Susan sums him up, “the one thing of value he has to give is his income”.
Teaming up again with Kate Beckinsale after appearing together in Whit Stillman’s previous The Last Days Of Disco, Chloë Sevigny seems slightly out of place as Mrs Johnson, the confidante for Lady Susan’s schemes, an American in London, married to an English husband (Stephen Fry in a cameo appearance), whose worst threat to limit her activities with Lady Susan is to send her back to Connecticut. The period atmosphere is nailed with natural lighting, uncomfortable, chilly interiors, carriages and perhaps too-gorgeous costumes, and Stillman wittily captures the complex constructions of the formal speech of the time.
He introduces the characters – grouped at their country seats – with tongue-in-cheek name captions and descriptions, both a distancing device and a necessity, given how many there are and how quickly the plot takes off. The quick-fire dialogue moves along briskly and the aphorisms just keep dropping from Lady Susan’s lips. Her wit is her tool for survival in that society, and heaven help anyone who gets in her way. Stillman’s film is a delightful, affectionate Regency parody for audiences that appreciate language and style, with the added bonus of a twist in its tail.
Love & Friendship is released on 27th May 2016 in the UK