Love & Friendship, adapted from Jane Austen’s novel Lady Susan, is a film of delicious wit and ingenious plotting – not in the structural narrative sense, but in the sense that several of the conversations are verbal tennis matches between people with agendas. On the top of that list is the recently widowed Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale), who, in 1790s England, enters the lives of her wealthy in-laws in a calculated attempt to find husbands for both herself and her daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark). Austen has been nothing if not consistent in her examinations of scheming women and English aristocracy, and once again, we in the audience are happy to sit back and take in the mannered behaviors and sitcom-esque contrivances.
Lady Susan, much like Margaret Mitchell’s Scarlett O’Hara, doesn’t go to great lengths to make herself likable. She’s manipulative, condescending, judgmental, opinionated, and unfeeling – a woman of profoundly selfish character. And yet, you have to admire how thoroughly she takes command of any given situation, how attuned she is to other people’s natures and the effortlessness with which she can hone in on and exploit weaknesses. You also have to admire her choice of words; she will insult you or stab you in the back if it serves her needs, but she does so with such exquisite grammatical elegance that it’s actually a pleasure to listen to. A perverted pleasure, I suppose.
Simultaneously, we are aware that Lady Susan’s actions, as malicious as they unquestionably are, stem from her awareness of the limited options given to women of the Georgian era. There were really only two options: They either married into wealth, or they became schoolteachers. “A Vernon will never go hungry,” she says at a certain point, and of course, we’re reminded of Scarlett O’Hara’s very similar declaration about hunger. So how harshly can she be judged? If you sit through the end credits, you will see a written advertisement for a tie-in novelization written by writer/director Whit Stillman, in which it’s promised that “Lady Susan will be vindicated.” Perhaps Stillman should get busy adapting that into a sequel.
Several men factor into the story, but two are integral. One is Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), the man Lady Susan has chosen for Frederica. He’s a nice enough person, but he’s also silly, hopelessly naïve, and an incessant chatterbox. Indeed, he will spend his scenes hilariously yammering about subjects he clearly knows nothing about, as evidenced by his fondness for the Lord’s twelve commandments. Naturally, Frederica has no desire to marry him. The object of her desire is the man Lady Susan has set her sights on – her former brother in law, the handsome Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel). His sister (Emma Greenwell) appears to be the only one who suspects that Lady Susan is up to no good. However, she doesn’t scheme to stop her so much as show genuine concern.
Nearly always at Lady Susan’s side is Alicia Johnson (Chloë Sevigny), an expatriate American. She isn’t quite Lady Susan’s coconspirator; for the most part, she’s merely a trusted confidant who takes delight in Lady Susan’s cold-hearted meddling from a distance. However, there comes a moment when she says something to Lady Susan, something that strongly suggests she can be just as conniving and manipulative. Yes, her idea would lead to an outcome that would suit Lady Susan just fine, but that isn’t the point; the point is that Alicia does possess the ability to plant ideas in other people’s heads and influence the desire to act upon them. Perhaps, for women like Alicia and Lady Susan, it’s equally about the sport of it as it is about survival.
I’m sure some audiences will criticize the fact that Love & Friendship resolves itself so neatly, which isn’t to say happily (determining that depends entirely on what point of view you take). What they need to keep in mind that the intention was never to tell a realistic story. The film is really nothing more than a romantic comedy, prone to narrative contrivances and characterizations we’re well aware of, made with no greater purpose than entertainment. What rises this film above most like it is that its period setting makes it far more stilted, which in turn makes it far more fun. When dealing with affairs of the heart – seductions, betrayals, declarations, secrets – I’ll take literate, flowery prose over simple contemporary dialogue any day.