4 stars. Rated PG, for no particular reason
By Derrick Bang
I wonder if late 18th century aristocrats actually were so unswervingly polite with each other, or whether that’s an affectation we’ve grown to expect from Jane Austen stories.
Whatever the actual truth, dramatic adaptations of Austen’s tales always are a treat, in great part because of the diabolically deceptive manner in which characters cut each other dead, with such cleverly scathing turns of phrase ... always delivered quietly, with a disarming smile that leaves the victim in stunned silence.
Director/scripter Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship has many such delectable moments, with plenty of tart dialog exchanged between the various good-hearted characters who do their best to survive encounters with the predatory schemer in their midst. The film is based on a lesser-known Austen work: the epistolary novella Lady Susan, likely written in the 1790s, before any of her published longer works, and then withheld. It remained unseen for half a century after her death, until a nephew published it in 1871.
Aside from its relative brevity, Lady Susan differs from Austen’s “classic” works — most notably Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Emma — in that its “heroine” is neither honorable nor admirable. Lady Susan Vernon is selfish, conniving and utterly ruthless, caring not a whit for the bruised or shattered feelings of those left in her wake.
In short, she’s a monster.
And yet, as played here to saucy, unapologetically haughty perfection by Kate Beckinsale, she’s utterly irresistible.
From a safe distance.
The saga begins as the recently widowed Lady Susan flees a scandal, choosing to “hide out” at Churchill, the estate of her in-laws, Charles Vernon (Justin Edwards) and his wife, Catherine DeCourcy Vernon (Emma Greenwell). Charles is magnanimous, by nature believing the best in everybody; Catherine is wary, recalling how her marriage was so vociferously opposed by Lady Susan.
Still, Lady Susan now appears chastened and friendly; Catherine cautiously hopes for the best.
She should have gone with her first instinct.
The situation initially improves with the arrival of Lady Susan’s daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark), a charming and honorable young woman who, it would seem, has been expelled from her finishing school (possibly because Lady Susan keeps neglecting to pay the tuition).
Also to Frederica’s credit: She fears her mother, and wishes no part of her plans ... particularly Lady Susan’s insistence that her daughter should marry the eligible and quite wealthy Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett). Frederica has ample cause for concern; aside from being quite a bit older — much more Lady Susan’s peer — the giddily cheerful Sir James is exceptionally silly and ill-informed.
As introduced by Stillman in this film’s cleverly depicted “cast of characters,” Sir James is described as “a bit of a rattle.” Bennett’s performance is hilarious: Sir James’ non-sequiturs and random musings are conversation-stoppers that leave everybody blinking in disbelief. He’s the epitome of the aristocratic British fop, having been raised in an environment that has rendered him utterly useless. (Some of Bertie Wooster’s old school chums come to mind.)
But Sir James hasn’t an unkind bone in his body, and — his inane behavior notwithstanding — his affections, when granted, are steadfast and true.
All of which should make him the perfect match for Lady Susan, who’d be able to manipulate him to her heart’s content. But her eye is taken instead by Catherine’s handsome brother, Reginald (Xavier Samuel). Although initially mistrustful of Lady Susan because of the notorious reputation that has preceded her, the callow Reginald is no match for her manipulative talents.
In a heartbeat, Lady Susan and Reginald are affianced, much to the horror of Catherine and their parents, Sir Reginald (James Fleet) and Lady DeCourcy (Jemma Redgrave), both of whom know precisely what sort of person Lady Susan is.
So does the “very respectable” Mr. Johnson (Stephen Fry), who possesses more than passing awareness of what led to Lady Susan’s abrupt departure from her previous “extended visit.” Unfortunately, Mr. Johnson’s wife, the ex-pat American Alicia (Chloë Sevigny), is Lady Susan’s best friend and confidante ... and every inch as spitefully cruel.
Indeed, eavesdropping on Alicia and Lady Susan — the former delighting in the latter’s Machiavellian plots — is both droll and breathtaking. Both women are so outrageously cynical and spiteful ... and yet their scabrous behavior, and cutting bon mots, are delicious. It’s hard not to admire such adroit proficiency, particularly when Stillman scripts such choice dialog, and Beckinsale delivers it so deftly.
Samuel unerringly navigates the complexities of Reginald’s character: He must be intelligent and kind, while also naïve and malleable ... but not too malleable, lest we lose respect for him. It’s a delicate balancing act, which Samuel pulls off quite well.
Clark is appropriately timid as Frederica, while also displaying just enough spunk to stand up for herself (if only when her mother isn’t around). Edwards is a rock of geniality as Charles, and Jenn Murray plays a significant third-act role as the shrill, hysterical Lady Lucy Manwaring.
Devotees of Downton Abbey will appreciate Stillman’s brief but often telling attention to sidebar butlers, maids and footmen.
Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh’s costumes are colorful, sumptuous and statements in their own right, particularly the variations on Lady Susan’s “widow’s black,” which don’t entirely strike us as mourning attire. Mhaoldomhnaigh certainly is familiar with the period, having also provided the opulent clothing for 2007’s Becoming Jane.
The shoot actually took place in and around Dublin, with cinematographer Richard Van Oosterhout making the verdant countryside — and opulent palatial interiors — seem to sparkle.
Its engaging cast and scripted joys notwithstanding, Stillman’s film suffers from an unexpectedly abrupt — and somewhat unsatisfying — conclusion. It’s a bit short, at 92 minutes; given the early attention to detail and methodical development of romantic suspense, Stillman wraps things up in a hasty flurry. And while he obviously was obliged to follow Austen’s narrative template, fans of poetic justice may feel cheated.
That said, the journey is thoroughly enjoyable, even if the destination is a bit of a letdown. Gaining access to a “new” Austen story is special all by itself; having it adapted with such droll and charming wit is the cherry on top.