Love & Friendship is the Sharpest, Darkest Austen Adaptation You Will Ever See — and One of the Best
For all of the romanticizing of the Regency Era, it was not the best time to be a woman. It was especially unfortunate to be a single woman, and most especially a single woman of little fortune. While Jane Austen’s much beloved novels of the period have convinced many a reader that it was a time of chivalry and manners most refreshing compared to the crassness of today, it was also a time when a woman was dependent on her husband for a comfortable life. If she took it into her own hands to seek out an income, she was generally looked down upon. Every single one of Jane Austen’s six completed novels centers around a heroine who ends up married for love despite myriad obstacles; these husbands are, for the most part, also quite wealthy. Yet one imagines that in reality, such swooning declarations of devotion conveniently coupled with five thousand a year were an exception to the rule. Austen’s novels might be categorized as classics of fiction, but in this regard they frequently bear a closer resemblance to fairy tales.
In contrast, Love & Friendship, adapted from Austen’s unfinished epistolary novel Lady Susan, feels utterly grounded in the harsh reality of life for Regency women. It is also incredibly hilarious, a witty, wordy satire of everything one associates with the period. The film is written, directed and produced by Whit Stillman, who has a knack for creating characters with sharp tongues that frequently cut open the fabric of smart, stylish society and reveal the ugliness buried beneath the glamour (See: Metropolitan, The Last Days of Disco). Here, he is reunited with his Disco leading ladies, Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny, to tell the tale of Lady Susan Vernon, a widow who will stop at nothing to find wealthy husbands for both herself and her daughter, Frederica.
Lady Susan, played to perfection by the brazen and beautiful Beckinsale, is infamous throughout proper English society for her flirtatiousness and for “ruining” her late husband. Low on cash and obviously not willing to stoop to finding employment, Lady Susan relies on the kindness of friends who are willing to let her stay with them in their grand estates. After an affair with the married Lord Manwaring leads to her being chased out of her latest residence by the man’s angry wife (“If she was going to be jealous, she should not have married such a charming man,” Lady Susan reasons), she seeks refuge with her reluctant in-laws and immediately sets about matchmaking for both herself and her daughter. For Frederica, Lady Susan is eyeing the supremely silly Sir James Martin, who giggles incessantly while pushing peas around his plate and is shocked to hear there are only ten, as opposed to twelve, commandments. For herself, Lady Susan sets about seducing her brother-in-law’s son, the naive — and very young — Reginald DeCourcy. This is much to the chagrin of her in-laws, who are aghast at the idea that this much older widow might disgrace yet another member of their noble family. As one can imagine, scandal ensues.
In Love & Friendship, there is no romantic hero in the tradition of Fitzwilliam Darcy or Charles Brandon. Indeed, every single male character in the film is a buffoon. The only one spared is Lord Manwaring, and that is because he does not speak a word in the entire film — he merely glowers, dark and handsome, at the screen. Every time the other men in the movie open their mouths, one can’t help but titter politely behind one’s white-gloved hand. They exist as objects to be toyed with, manipulated and won by the various women around them. As Lady Susan, Beckinsale runs circles around all of them, her verbal sparring so sharp and so quick that she leaves the men stripped bare of their dignity before they even realize what has happened. This is the kind of role she was born to play; to see her evolve from playing innocent ingenue Hero in her debut, Much Ado About Nothing, to playing a character as conniving and cunning as Lady Susan is absolutely delightful. Lady Susan is a figure of terror among the respectable Regency rich, but to the modern woman, she is actually quite admirable. She is far more clever and ambitious than everyone around her (her sister-in-law bemoans her “diabolical genius”), and she stops at nothing to get what she wants — even if it means throwing everyone else around her under the proverbial horse-drawn carriage.
As one can expected from a Whit Stillman film, the dialogue is both disturbingly dark and incredibly funny. It includes all of the period tropes that one would expect from an Austen adaptation, frequently turned on their heads. “You married a man too old to be controlled and too young to die,” Lady Susan tells her best friend and confidant, Alicia, before declaring, “May his next gouty attack be a severe one.” Unfortunately, Sevigny struggles with the wordplay more than the other members of the cast. As Alicia, whose husband (Stephen Fry) keeps threatening to send her back to Hartford, Connecticut, Sevigny initially appears to not fit into the ensemble for the same reason she would not have fit into proper English society — because she is the only American among them. However, as the film goes on, it becomes clear that the reason why Sevigny doesn’t fit in has more to do with her stilted delivery of the dialogue than the fact that it is delivered in an American accent. Nonetheless, it is still lovely to see her onscreen with Beckinsale again eighteen years after The Last Days of Disco.
Both those who love and loathe Austen’s works should be able to appreciate the numerous good qualities of Love & Friendship. Hidden among summer blockbusters more focused on noise than nuance, it is a breath of fresh air — and despite what some of the English elite might believe, far more nourishing than a cup of tea.