In 18th century England being part of the influential circles in polite society is all the rage. The widowed Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) makes steps to rectify her financial situation by landing a wealthy husband on a visit to her in-laws. But her plotting, planning and scheming is complicated by the abrupt arrival of her adolescent daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark). And before long, the mother and daughter double act are caught in a love rectangle with a Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel) and a match who’s as wealthy as he is dimwitted, Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett). Chloe Sevigny (Bloodline) co-stars as the American Alicia Johnson and close friend to Lady Susan Vernon who aids her in her matchmaking scheme. This is a great period costume drama written and directed by Whit Stillman, adapted from the Jane Austen novella, Lady Susan.
Love & Friendship surprised me, as it was better than I expected it to be. Sure, it’s no Downton Abbey or Poldark but it’s a hidden gem which I stumbled on quite by accident. Its humour is very subtle and souly relies on the timing of one liners but it’s incredibly witty too. Lady Vernon may even give Violet and Isobel Crawley a run for their money. They are the Queens Of The Quip when it comes to witty banter in their respective period dramas. Kate Beckinsale has given the performance of her career as the sly Lady Vernon. She’s a stunningly beautiful single mother in 1790s England. She has no money and no husband. For a woman to be independent in those days would have been the scandal of England. That simply would not do. She goes out looking for a rich husband to look after her who would give her political position in polite society, status and sexual fulfillment.
Funnily enough, this very British drama was written by an American. His approach is borderline with a hint of Julian Fellows in there. Many of the conversations between characters seemed like something out of Downton Abbey as well as the numerous awkward silences amidst the buffoonery and silliness of resident fatuous nincompoop, Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett). He’s rich but it seems his brain cells have taken the air. As with any period drama, especially with Jane Austen, sex and money are at the forefront of things. We are witness to both sides of the spectrum in terms of how British people of the time pondered in their ideas. On one hand, they are having afternoon tea with table etiquette and on the other hand they are money-grabbing capitalists and ruthless in their selfishness in stopping their families from falling into the society of the common folk. So basically, they don’t want to have to work for a living. They do what is necessary to not have to become a peasant.
Lady Susan (Beckinsale) is ruthless, unethical, immoral and really doesn’t care who she hurts, as long as she gets what she wants. She is all these things whilst seducing different men, which becomes the talk of the town. Susan is really quite charming yet so conniving. It’s an experience in itself to watch Beckinsale at work within this character. She says “my daughter has shown herself to be cunning and manipulative. I couldn’t be more pleased.” Good or evil, hero or villain? Susan could be any of these depending on your perspective. The way she destroys marriages and treats her relatives with scorn, all for her and her daughter’s survival is quite magnificent to watch. What she does is horrific, but you have to think about why she does it. In that time, women of high birth couldn’t be widowed forever and being independent was a one-way ticket to social seclusion. It’s either marry a rich man or be impoverished. She was living in a patriarchal society and had no choice but to rely on the stupidity and misfortune of others.
Stillman has an unmatched talent for creating jest out the folly of British incompetence as well as the British lifestyle. Even Julian Fellowes (Downton Abbey) or Poldark (Debbie Horsefield) don’t match this when it comes to depicting uselessness and sheer stupidity of characters such as Mrs Cross whose only job is to pack and unpack. Lady Susan’s lack of care for people doesn’t cloud the fact that she is fighting a war to survive. She has a mind for strategy and war games, even if those games are merely political and playing off the good nature of others. If she was born a man, she’d be unstoppable, especially since she has plans within plans and can double bluff people. Cunning and calculating don’t do justice to the nature of her character, in conjunctionto being a wordsmith even in times of great pressure.
The film is structurally all over the place. It darts around different locations as well as introducing us to a variety of different characters which the director labels when they first appear. This suits the original story really well since the novella was much the same. The story is mayhem but it’s a sort of beautiful chaos that isn’t too much to handle and quite palatable. For those accustomed to the Jane Austen BBC dramas, this story has very little substance in comparison yet that doesn’t take anything away from the quality of this film. My only qualm is that it could have been half an hour longer. Instead of ninety-two minute feature time, it should have been two hours (give or take a couple of minutes) thus fleshing out the characters a bit more. Another plus to the movie is the costume design. As with many Austen dramas, they always excel with costume. Love & Friendship is no different. The period costume pieces are picturesque and incredibly wonderful to look at.
All in all, a wonderful movie based on the novella from the witty and intelligent Jane Austen. Costume and set design are the standout elements of the movie in addition to quality acting performances from Kate Beckinsale as well witty dialogue and truly capturing the aura of England. This is a grand addition to the roster of Jane Austen adaptations.
This movie is really quite scandalous