A Film Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
Jane Austen has in some part become thoroughly associated with the imagery of nineteenth-century British aristocracy. The mere mentions of Pride and Prejudice, Emma, or Sense and Sensibility conjure up images of gorgeous clothing, idyllic countryside manors where some lord or baron nevertheless complains about possible impoverishment, and most individuals being thoroughly consumed by the seemingly Machiavellian machinations of marriage. Lady Susan, an epistolary novel not published until 1871 in spite of it being penned around 1794, very much takes place within that world but its own narrative and character machinations are quite different than what someone would expect of an Austen adaptation in today’s day and age. It wouldn’t be difficult in that sense to travel from Netherfield to Churchill in physical terms and feel perfectly in place. The sharpness of the wit in conversations, however, would be another thing entirely. Lady Susan is thoroughly concerned with gorgeous clothing, idyllic countryside manors whose inhabitants are concerned about possible impoverishment, and indeed the central narrative thoroughfare is concerned with Lady Susan Vernon trying to find a suitable match for herself and for her daughter after her husband’s demise. The key difference between Pride and Prejudice and Lady Susan, however, is that the latter is very much framed from the construct of a sharp satire with a female protagonist with few nineteenth-century parallels. The titular Lady Susan, as written by Whit Stallman (Damsels in Distress) and played to biting perfection by Kate Beckinsale (Underworld), is thoroughly in charge of her destiny, eschewing the patriarchal notions around her of exactly how a woman should behave. She’s scandalous in short for espousing the behavior a man is almost expected to espouse.
Lady Susan’s journey begins with her immediate turn towards friends, whom are few, and family, whom are many. Her husband had passed away and she had afterwards found some solace in the Manwaring estate (that name cannot be a coincidence). A dalliance with the married Lord Manwaring (Lochlann O’Mearáin, The Summit) led to an unceremonious turning out of the estate and with a friend and lover spurned, she turned towards her family at the Churchill estate. Churchill is a lovely manor in the countryside, quaint and lavish in ways most people would die for, but Lady Susan sees it as a barrier to greater fortunes. Her brother in-law Charles Vernon (Justin Edwards, The Duchess) is simple, kind, and with access to fortune (the type of man the film jokes is ideal) and his wife Catherine Vernon (Emma Greenwell, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) is equally kind, albeit with a significant increase in the sharpness and wit departments. The Vernons are quite aware of Lady Susan’s reputation and Catherine in particular is aghast that a woman of such ill repute and with a marriageable daughter of her own would be wed to her younger brother, the dashing Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel, Frankenstein). Lady Susan is perfectly aware of what she perceives to be “country sensibilities” and together with her partner-in-crime Alicia Johnson (Chloë Sevigny, Lovelace) proceeds to outmatch her opponents at almost every turn with wits so sharp no man would suspect her of having them in the first place (notably none of those men would be her match). Sir James Martin (a great Tom Bennett, EastEnders) is such a man, a hilarious epitome of the clueless man whose privileges go right over his head. Even this man, who has no idea of what peas are, notes that it’s perfectly okay for men to commit adultery for it is in their biology while for a woman to do the same would be counteracting their very character. Alicia’s sharp smile in return is incredibly telling.
Love & Friendship’s greatest success is its sharp subtlety, the kind that cuts so sharply it’s a wonder that everyone the blade is slicing across isn’t simply bleeding profusely but somehow keeps up the perfect sense of “propriety” Austen’s characters are so often concerned with. It’s a tricky balancing act but Stillman pulls it off beautifully. The film, while suffering from a languid nature at times, is largely never dull for long stretches of time as the sharp one-liners that are saying one thing but meaning something entirely different snip across at just the right moments. Stillman’s direction is assured but never flashy, his directorial style focused more so on garnering the sharp, comedic performances from his actors rather than over-stylizing the period’s Victorian setting. The setting itself is as delectable as one would hope for in a film set during the end of the eighteenth century and the costume design in particular is nothing short of breathtaking. The performances are all splendid, but the two actors who strike the greatest tonal balance to perfection are Beckinsale and Bennett. Bennett is absolutely hilarious as the clueless nobleman who is so thoroughly unaware of his own lack of intelligence and how people perceive him for it, a performance thoroughly understanding of exactly what the message behind the character is. While the men in Love & Friendship are perfectly emblematic of what happens to male perception and ability when the entire society around you tells you and reinforces how vital you are because of your gender, Beckinsale’s Lady Susan is a thrilling portrait of how women (in this case, aristocratic women to note) often had to use that system to their advantage in the face of men who simply couldn’t think that women had an intelligence even remotely equal to their own. Beckinsale, who has often been saddled with roles that are less than desirable (that she is primarily known for those insufferable Underworld movies is quite sad), is given a role truly worthy of her talents here. Her absolute command of the character more often than not puts everyone else on screen to absolute shame. Lady Susan Vernon would approve.
Title: Love & Friendship
MPAA Rating: PG
Directed by: Whit Stillman
Produced by: Whit Stillman, Katie Holly, Lauranne Bourrachot
Screenplay by: Whit Stillman
Based on: Lady Susan by Jane Austen
Starring: Kate Beckinsale, Xavier Samuel, Emma Greenwell, Morfydd Clark, Jemma Redgrave, Tom Bennett, James Fleet, Justin Edwards, Jenn Murray, Stephen Fry, Chloë Sevigny
Music by: Mark Suozzo
Cinematography by: Richard Van Oosterhout
Edited by: Sophie Corra
Production Company(s): Blinder Films, Chic Films, Revolver Films, Westerly Films
Distributed by: Amazon Studios, Roadside Attractions
Running Time: 93 minutes
Release Dates: May 13, 2016 (United States)
Image Courtesy: NPR
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