Love & Friendship, the recently released film directed by Whit Stillman, is based on the novella entitled Lady Susan, written by Jane Austen when she was just fourteen. Because the novella itself has a deliberately satirical style (it is meant not to be a comedy of manners so much as to parody one), it’s a delightful choice for a frothy movie. Whit Stillman (Metropolitan, Barcelona, The Last Days of Disco) lives up to all the syllables of his name, with expert and adult direction. Kate Beckinsale, beautiful as a full-blown rose, plays Lady Susan–no blushing maiden, but a woman of the world and proud of it. Left penniless, if free, by the death of her husband, she must make her domicile with various friends and relatives who offer differing degrees of sympathy towards her plight, and her personality. It is Lady Susan’s wish that Frederica, her eligible virgin daughter–precariously kept at a school where Susan cannot pay the tuition–marry a nice but dim, and very rich, suitor. In the best 18th century tradition the daughter rebels. In the end, after weathering several scandals, both Susan and Frederica marry. Frederica’s happiness is ensured and Susan’s lavish lifestyle will continue, this time without the tiresome intervention of bill collectors.
Lady Susan is sharp as a pin, without sentiment and, blissfully, without self-awareness–a kind of precursor to Scarlett O’Hara. Sporting a red feather in her hat, she does what she wants, whenever she can, and enjoys it. She neither asks for sympathy nor obtains any. Some of the best scenes are those between Susan and her daughter. The men in Susan’s life can take care of themselves, but Frederica is totally vulnerable. She withers and shrinks beneath her mother’s tongue lashings; yet she is too lovely and spirited herself to be defeated for long.
The 90 minutes of this film move along briskly. Many of the supporting actors are either unknown to me, or wasted–the brilliant Stephen Fry has a negligible part as a disapproving husband, which could have been played by anybody. I noticed that, in a scene set in Susan’s boudoir, one of the rugs seemed to be historically inaccurate–it was a carved Chinese rug, seemingly of modern design, rather than the embossed rugs proper to the period. However, all in all, the movie, though propelled by a nasty character, is nice, innocent frivolity. All sex is implied; social life is portrayed as a matter of wit and elitism rather than rampant lust and democratic vulgarity.
I leave you with this thought, courtesy of The Jane Austen Society: “Every time Jane Austen is spelled Austin, a single man in possession of a fortune dies.”