That Whit Stillman would adapt Jane Austen seems sort of inevitable. The writer/director references Austen in his 1990 debut Metropolitan and her work has been an obvious influence ever since. Stillman’s films have, by and large, focused on the passions and misunderstandings of essentially decent young people trying to navigate a world that doesn’t always reward decency — Austenian concerns all, even if she would never imagine them being applied to Barcelona‘s end-of-the-Cold War Spain or the bustling, fading Manhattan nightlife of The Last Days of Disco. So, in that sense, Love & Friendship, an adaptation of Austen’s early novella Lady Susan, comes as no surprise.
What is surprising is how little it lives up to the expectations of either creator while still being very much a fusion of Stillman and Austen’s sensibilities. Stillman’s films have generally been rooted in a particular time and place namely, with the notable exception of his 2011 comeback film Damsels in Distress, the world of the elites and near-elites living in the closing decades of the last century. But he seems right at home here slipping into the arch wit of another era. As played, wonderfully, by Kate Beckinsale, protagonist Lady Susan Vernon is a sharper, more manipulative, and much less, well, decent a character than those who take center stage in Austen’s most famous novels (to say nothing of being a few years older than the usual Austen or Stillman heroine).
The film begins in tears and, though recently widowed, it’s not Susan who’s crying. Essentially driven from the home where she was staying by the lady of the house’s objections to that attentions Susan has paid to her husband, Susan’s forced to take refuge at the home of her in-laws. She arrives preceded by rumors of her conduct and she’s welcomed by her already-suspicious sister-in-law Catherine (Emma Greenwell), Catherine’s more tolerant husband Charles (Justin Edwards), and Catherine’s brother Reginald (Xavier Samuel), an eligible young man of good prospects.