Last month, the big-screen adaptation of Jane Austen’s Lady Susan landed in theaters, under the title Love & Friendship. Just in case our fellow bluestockings might be on the fence about it, one of our reviewers volunteered to check out the movie and report back to the rest of the Bas Bleu team. Here’s what she had to say:
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a reader in search of Jane Austen must be in want of a copy of Pride and Prejudice. While Persuasion is my favorite of Austen’s novels, like so many bluestockings my exposure to the great author’s canon has been largely limited to her long-form works. It wasn’t until I came to Bas Bleu that I was introduced to Austen’s youthful writings. (Her History of England is a precocious and comical must!) And it wasn’t until I heard about Whit Stillman’s film adaptation of Austen’s short epistolary novel Lady Susan that I finally sat down and read the source material.
Though not published until 1871, more than fifty years after Austen’s death, Lady Susan is presumed to have been written around 1794, when Austen was eighteen or nineteen years old. Early manuscripts for Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice quickly followed, but those titles weren’t published until Austen was in her thirties. Her deft ear for humor and her sharp insight into human nature—all benchmarks of Austen’s mature novels—already are apparent in Lady Susan. But whether you chalk it up to youthful exuberance or wishful thinking, the lady at the heart of this story is a deliciously shocking departure from the Austen protagonists we’ve come to know and love.Lady Susan is a comprised of forty-one letters, all centered around the charming and beautiful Lady Susan Vernon. Left in dire financial straits by her husband’s recent death, Lady Susan is reliant on the hospitality of friends and relatives to keep herself and her daughter, Frederica, afloat, at least until advantageous matches for each can be arranged. As Austen storylines go, it rings true…until readers realize just how ruthless and manipulative Lady Susan really is. She is that rare female character who serves as both protagonist and antagonist, who delights and horrifies readers (and now viewers) in equal measure with her scheming and cunning.
For this big-screen adaptation (renamed Love & Friendship, not to be confused with Austen’s 1790 story “Love and Freindship” [sic]), director Whit Stillman (Manhattan, Barcelona) hews faithfully to the source material. Yes, the country estates are vast, the drawing rooms ornate, and the corsets cinched tight. But most important, the dialogue is drawn directly from the novel’s letter-chapters, all of which crackle with Austen’s trademark wit. (In a conversation with her best friend, Lady Susan laments a husband who is “too old to be agreeable, and too young to die.”)
For his lovely and magnetic lead, Stillman wisely chose Kate Beckinsale, who earned her literary-adaptation chops in past productions of Much Ado About Nothing, Cold Comfort Farm, and Emma. As Lady Susan, her ageless porcelain beauty is set on edge by a knowing half-smile, an obscene mass of gleaming curls, and a tone of voice that manages to be simultaneously prim, cunning, and disdainful. She is single-minded and businesslike, unburdened by conscience in her quest for the matrimonial prize. She treats everyone she knows—her friends, her friends’ husbands, her in-laws, even her own child—as mere tools in her arsenal. She controls every room she enters and every conversation she joins. For every plan dashed, two more grow in its place. Lady Susan meets each opposition and disappointment with a new scheme and a fresh, angelic smile. All the while her endeavors are so entertaining and so amusing that it took me days to realize that young Jane Austen, the imaginative daughter of a country rector, had created a sociopath.
To portray Alicia Johnson, Susan’s devoted partner in crime, Chloë Sevigny delivers well on her particular brand of frigid guile. Her pale-blond elegance conceals a scheming right-hand woman shocked not by Lady Susan’s machinations, but rather by those who dare attempt to thwart them. They are a prize pair, plotting heartbreak and homewreckage as artfully as a chess match. But while no one seems capable of stopping Lady Susan, Alicia is saddled with a gouty, forbidding husband (played by a delightfully droll Stephen Fry), one of only two men in the entire film who is proof against Lady Susan’s wiles.
Because when it comes to Susan Vernon, the men of Austen’s England are decidedly powerless. It is the women who see her coming a mile away, who attempt to out-maneuver her, who roll their eyes and grit their teeth over the fates of their infatuated menfolk. And yet in their masculine ranks is where the film lands its comedic star, the wealthy if clueless Sir James Martin, Frederica’s dim-witted beau. Rather than portray him as a dullard, actor Tom Bennett channels a grinning young Kenneth Branagh, transforming Sir James into a puppy in men’s breeches: wide-eyed and gleeful, talking constantly yet saying nothing, and utterly lacking the social skills needed to read a room. (A precursor to Mr. Collins, perhaps?) His every scene earned chortles of laughter from my fellow theatergoers—even as young Frederica’s face reflected utter despair at the prospect of being sold in marriage to such a fool. Ultimately, Lady Susan manages to leverage even Sir James’s buffoonery…but I won’t spoil the book or the film by telling you how! Just know that the result is a deft, jubilant comedy of manners that illuminates why Jane Austen’s writing continues to entertain readers two centuries after her death.