Jane Austen's novel Lady Susan is an odd fowl - full of the same sparkling wit as her more well-known novels, but with none of their moral conservatism. After all, Austen's best-loved heroines are those that go on journeys of self-awareness and humbling. Emma, Lizzie and Marianne misjudge their love interests, and though, clever, must be humbled before ending up married under the benevolent guidance of their rich older husbands. In her later novels, it is the men who must do the learning, but nonetheless the novels are conservative in their final choices. Both Fanny Price and Anne Elliot are ultimately rewarded for their quiet virtue when flashier rivals have been undone.
By contrast, Austen's Lady Susan is a quite radical novel, and one utterly in contrast with the novels published either in or shortly after her lifetime. The eponymous heroine has all the sparkling brilliance and beauty of a Lizzie or Emma, but also something of the hard-hearted cynicism and slippery morality of a Becky Sharp. As a result, the novel and indeed this wonderful new film adaptation, feel rather more like Oscar Wilde than a more staid costume drama. And this feeling of brilliance mischief is only enhanced by Whit Stillman's superb feeling for comic timing and framing.
Lady Susan is a beautiful, clever but impoverished widow in the late eighteenth century. She's conducting an affair with the divine but married Lord Manwaring, but must simultaneously find both herself and her daughter good husbands. She begins by flirting with her brother-in-law, Reginald de Courcy who is closer in age to her meek daughter Frederica, while trying to foist Frederica on the dull-witted Sir James Martin. Meanwhile the de Courcy family would of course far prefer the virtuous Frederica for a daughter-in-law, and Lady Susan would rather like to have her cake and eat it.
In Whit Stillman's retelling of this story we move through the various flirtations and marriage plots at a brisk pace and with crackling wit. In a sense, we are in familiar territory to Stillman's DAMSELS IN DISTRESS. For Kate Beckinsale's Lady Susan is very much like Greta Gerwig's Violet - tremendously self-assured and clever and yet brutally bossy and unaware of how absurd half of her pronouncements are. The best thing you can say about the casting is that you're simultaneously enchanted by Susan and horrified by her. Indeed, I left the film with a profound regret that Beckinsale has been shoe-horned into schlock B-roles in Hollywood when she could've become a fine dramatic or comedic actress, and certainly someone I would've loved to see play Becky Sharp.
The supporting cast is brilliant although it's the unknown names that shine. Indeed, Chloe Sevigny and Stephen Fry are rather wasted in the smaller roles of Mr and Mrs Johnson - a sly joke being that she will be punished by being taken back to Connecticut ("My dear, you might be scalped!") There's far more fun to be had watching Tom Bennett as Sir James - in fact, I'd go so far as to say that he almost steals the movie. And Justin Edwards is superbly funny in a smaller role as Charles Vernon.
The resulting film is laugh out loud funny and satisfyingly cocks-a-snoop at all the predictable morality of classic costume drama. All the women are clever, even the ones who initially look meek, and all the men are puppets whose emotions and fortunes are directed by them. To that end, I suspect this might tempt fans of writers such as Thackery and Trollope as well as the Austen fans out there. The only slightly bizarre thing is why Whit Stillman decided to rename Lady Susan as LOVE & FRIENDSHIP unless poking fun at a movie that might have easily been called SEX & MONEY?
LOVE & FRIENDSHIP has a running time of 92 minutes and is rated U. The movie played Sundance 2016 and is currently on release in the UK, Ireland, the USA, Kuwait and Canada. It opens in Norway on June 17th, in France on June 22nd, in Poland on June 24th, in Portugal on June 30th, in Australia on July 31st, in Denmark on August 11th, in Taiwan on September 2nd, in Sweden on September 23rd and in Brazil on October 27th.