Lady Susan is a very early epistolary novel by the 18-year-old Jane Austen, one that she never submitted for publication in her lifetime. It was finally published in 1870, but has never been more than a curiosity for Austen enthusiasts, a kind of footnote to the great achievements of Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Sense and Sensibility, and the rest. But in terms of film adaptations, all of Austen’s other novels have been done—some several times—and maybe it was time somebody took on Lady Susan.
And it is our great fortune that the one who picked the project was Whit Stillman. Stillman, nominated for an Academy Award for his original screenplay for his 1990 film, Metropolitan, and writer and director of two subsequent comedies of manners in the same vein, found an 18th-century comedy of manners in the four dozen letters that make up the text of Lady Susan.
Previous Austen films have been beautiful period dramas, magnificently costumed and appropriately serious as befits Classical Literature of Significant Import. And with so many Austen aficionados out there, it’s hard to conceive of making Persuasion or Emma any other way. Stillman’s first brilliant step was in choosing Lady Susan, a novel that could not be filmed as it was written (a movie of people reading letters for two hours would be a pretty sorry affair), one that demanded to be rewritten and adapted, a text Stillman could dramatize in his own way and please the Janeites as well. In the process, he has created perhaps the definitive Jane Austen film, a comic romp that has less in common with, say, Ang Lee’s serious, emotional, and acclaimed Sense and Sensibility of thirty years ago than with Tony Richardson’s bawdy rollicking farce of Tom Jones from fifty years ago (perhaps it’s his clever and amusing use of that forgotten film art, the title card). Not that you’d call Love and Friendship “rollicking,” but it is a quick and witty romp with fairly conventional comic types, some fairly despicable knaves and a few blithering fools as well.
The revision of the title to Love & Friendship (a title borrowed from one of Austen’s youthful stories) makes the film seem more in line with Austen’s better-known works (Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility), but also distances the film somewhat form its source, suggesting a complete makeover. Stillman has created a comic masterpiece with the timeless sardonic wit of Austen’s own lines and the flawless delivery of those lines by Kate Beckinsale in particular. Beckinsale plays the young widow Lady Susan Vernon, who, amid rumors of her improper dalliances with the married Lord Manwaring (Lochlann O’Mearain), comes to visit her brother-in-law Charles Vernon (the ridiculously agreeable Justin Edwards) and his wife, the suspicious and watchful Catherine DeCourcy Vernon (played with watchful suspicion by Emma Greenwell), to weather the storm of gossip and ill-will she has been encountering in Britain’s higher social circles—“Facts are horrid things,” she says at one point. At Charles’s manor, Churchill, she becomes acquainted with Catherine’s younger brother, the terribly eligible Reginald DeCourcy (played handsomely and charmingly by Xavier Samuel), whose head she soon turns with her charm and wit, and her uncanny recognition of what men are really looking for in women. And so the plot of the story revolves around Lady Susan’s machinations to find suitable husbands for both herself and her young daughter Frederica, played with appropriate purity and passion by newcomer Morfydd Clark.
One of Stillman’s most effective ways of dealing with the problem of filming the epistolary novel is the use of Chloe Sevigny (with whom he—and Beckinsale—worked previously on The Last Days of Disco in 1998). Sevigny plays Alicia Johnson, Lady Susan’s American-born confidante, to whom she addresses the letters that reveal her true cunning and motives in the novel. In the film, the two meet regularly and discuss Susan’s plans, which Alicia is eager to encourage and from which she seems to get a kind of vicarious thrill. Her husband Mr. Johnson (played in a wonderful cameo by Stephen Fry) wants her to have nothing to do with Susan, and threatens to send Alicia back to Connecticut on the next Northern Passage, which he advises “Is quite cold this time of year.” Lady Susan, of course, sympathizes with Alicia’s somewhat confining marriage: “What a mistake you made in marrying him,” she tells her friend. “Too old to be governable, too young to die.”
The actors are all flawless in their roles here, but Beckinsale is the one who must, and who does, make the movie. She is simultaneously despicable and alluring, and you are simultaneously appalled and delighted by what she says and does. Lady Susan is conniving, cunning, scheming, sharp and resourceful, and Beckinsale hits every note perfectly. She’s the kind of character that you would hate to know in real life, but who is totally fascinating to watch in a film. This is the most memorable performance of 2016 so far.
But the actor who very nearly steals the movie is Tom Bennett as Sir James Martin. Stillman makes much of Austen’s suggestions in her book that Sir James is “as silly as ever,” and describes him in the title cards as “a bit of a rattle,” which apparently is 1790s slang for a complete dolt. Sir James, master of a wealthy estate, is such a twit that he can’t remember how many commandments there are, and has a hilarious scene in which he discovers the joy of eating peas, giggling at the “little green balls” on his plate. Bennett, hitherto known essentially as a British television actor, may have a rewarding future as a comic film actor.
Perhaps the thing that makes this film so successful is the fact that it was not made in Hollywood, but was funded by ARTE (a Franco-German television production company), the Irish Film Board, and the Netherlands Film Fund. There were no expectations of following the summer movie mania guidelines of appealing to teenagers with comic book characters and lots of violence, special effects, and minimalist dialogue. Stillman followed his own instincts, and has made a classic.
I’m going to go ahead and give this movie four Shakespeares, as probably the best Austen adaptation yet made. So skip all those films that are filling up multiple screens at the local theater—forget the Ninja turtles, the Mad Hatter, and the X-Men (they’re not very good anyway, and you’ve already seen them in a slightly different form), and go see something that’s actually good—and that you haven’t seen before.