Love & Friendship

July 22, 2016
Kate Beckinsale in 'Love & Friendship' (2016)
Kate Beckinsale in 'Love & Friendship' (2016)

On the occasion of her 19th birthday Jane Austen’s father bought her a mahogany writing desk. Today it might have been a new laptop, but the intention was the same: to encourage his daughter’s literary hobby, which seemed quite harmless. He was less relaxed about her growing tendency for flirting with young males at the balls she attended.

Jane responded to her father’s gift with Lady Susan, a brief epistolary novel about a women described as “the most accomplished coquette in England”. A widow in her 30s, Lady Susan Vernon, is not merely “a very distinguished flirt”, she has raised flirtation to the status of an art or a science. In her letters to her confidante, Mrs. Johnson, we find Lady Susan boasting of her power over men. “If I am vain of anything,” she writes, “it is my eloquence. Consideration and esteem as surely follow command of language as admiration waits on beauty.”

For 19-year-old Jane, Lady Susan was a formidable alter ego – charming, worldly, and completely amoral. Although society may judge her as vicious, Lady Susan maintains an excellent opinion of herself and a cynical view of the world. Every word and deed is calculated to best achieve her objectives. When anything goes wrong she is inwardly furious but keeps an outward calm. Those who oppose her schemes must be “punished”.

This is so delicious it’s hard to believe it was written by a teenage girl during the reign of George III. The wit and irony of the mature Austen is already present in embryo. It’s just as surprising that no filmmaker has latched onto Lady Susan before the urbane Whit Stillman took on the project. To create a little confusion he has borrowed the title of an even earlier Austen novella, Love and Friendship (sic), which was written at the age of 15.

Stillman’s Love & Friendship features Kate Beckinsale as Lady Susan in an act of career redemption after too many moronic action-fantasy films. Mrs. Johnson is played by ChloĆ« Sevigny, better known for arthouse rather than period drama. The proud, impetuous dupe of Lady Susan’s seductive skills is Australian actor, Xavier Samuel, as Reginald De Courcy, a young man who is determined to dislike this notorious woman but quickly falls under her spell. Susan’s poor, long-suffering daughter, Frederica, is played by Morfydd Clark, whose previous experience of Jane Austen came in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016).

No-one must be allowed to upstage Lady Susan, but one character steals the show by dint of invincible stupidity – Tom Bennett’s Sir James Martin, who is described as “a bit of a rattle”. This is presumably the sound of Sir James’s brains rattling around in his head. By way of compensation he is both rich and eligible, and to Lady Susan seems a perfect match for a reluctant Frederica. Given Susan’s barely-disguised dislike for her daughter, she may consider it the match Frederica deserves.

In the novel Sir James has only a walk-on part but Bennett has made him into one of those rare comic turns who only has to appear on screen for the audience to start squirming in their seats, eager for some new imbecility. His homily on “the Twelve Commandments” defies description.

This is only Stillman’s fifth feature, having made his directorial debut in 1990, with Metropolitan, a film that showed how dialogue redolent of Jane Austen could be transposed onto contemporary Manhattan.

With Love & Friendship he has attempted the opposite: to fit the sexual mores of our times into Georgian costume. Lady Susan is outrageous enough in Austen’s imaginings but Stillman makes her into even more of an adventuress. He has given us a sex farce with no overt sex, framed by exquisite formality and politeness. At moments we could be watching a version of Dangerous Liaisons rather than a comedy of English manners.

The movie is sustained by glorious verbal exchanges, some lifted directly from Austen, but mostly the work of Stillman, who has an ear for dialogue that Joseph L. Mankiewicz might have envied.

Beckinsale has the perfect face for Lady Susan, at her freshest when things are going wrong. It’s hard to think of a movie heroine with a more complete sense of entitlement. While professing her love and concern for those around her, she is utterly devoted to her own welfare – indeed, her own pleasures. While flirting with De Courcy she allows herself the option of a dalliance with the masculine Mr Manwaring, a past conquest she is unwilling to give up.

Lady Susan’s reputation may be dire but she believes the opinion of the world can be overcome by the exercise of intellect. Beauty, as she sees it, is merely the handmaiden of intelligence. In her assertiveness, her willingness to claim her own freedoms, Lady Susan must have been a vicarious fantasy for Austen. Confident of her own superiority in a world of mere men, she announces herself to us as a post-feminist avant la lettre.

Love & Friendship
Written and directed by Whit Stillman, after a novella by Jane Austen
Starring Kate Beckinsale, Chloƫ Sevigny, Xavier Samuel, Morfydd Clark, Tom Bennett, Justin Edwards, Emma Greenwell, Stephen Fry, James Fleet, Jemma Redgrave
Ireland/Netherlands/France/USA/UK, rated PG, 92 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 23rd July, 2016.