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.
A more familiar sort of Austen hero would immediately see in Reginald a good match for her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark, who also appeared in this year’s other Austen adaptation, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). But Susan isn’t that sort of heroine, and instead she sets about, however subtly, claiming Reginald as her own prize while pawning Frederica off on Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett, a standout in a strong cast), a moneyed doofus who makes the Upper Class Twit of the Year contenders from the Monty Python sketch look like they could crack the mystery of cold fusion. Also in the picture: Susan’s nearly-as-wicked American friend Alicia (Chloe Sevigny, making this a little Last Days of Disco reunion) and her husband (Stephen Fry), who threatens to move his wife back to, gasp, America if she continues to associate with Susan.
Susan is, at heart, kind of awful. But much of what makes Stillman’s film, and Beckinsale’s performance, so delightful comes from how little she’s aware of, or cares about, her awfulness — and how effectively her charm and beauty papers over the blackness of her heart. Well, grayness, anyway: This being a Stillman film, and one set in Austen country, Susan’s not irredeemable and the film works toward an ending that answers the question of whether or not her selfishness has its limits. But though she’s there in part to contrast the virtue of Frederica and others, she’s considerably more compelling than the more naturally virtuous characters. Beckinsale makes even a moment when she wishes, in so many words, for someone’s death seem charming. Her Susan’s the sort of woman who can make even the most upstanding people question whether or not they’ve had the wrong idea all along.
Much of the pleasure of the film comes from watching her do this within the confines of a respectable, late-18th century world that values nothing so much as propriety. Susan’s every line has layers. There’s what she says and the meaning nested within those statements. She’s an operator, with a killer smile and a great wardrobe, and though she might not meet anyone’s definition of goodness, Stillman still finds ways to emphasize her admirable qualities. She schemes to get what she wants, but she’s also remarkably self-assured, determined not to slip into the role expected of her as a widow of limited means. She’s a lusty, vibrant, force of nature, a wildflower in a carefully manicured world. She’s hard to trust, but easy to love, especially in a movie set up to love her.