Movie Review: "Love and Friendship"
You would be forgiven if you had never heard of Jane Austen’s novella Lady Susan. There is good reason for that. One of the earliest pieces she ever wrote, Austen never submitted it for publication, and it only appeared in print when her nephew decided to publish it 54 years after her death. An immature work nowhere near the moral depth and complexity of novels like Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Persuasion, almost no one would have heard of, let alone considered to read, Lady Susan had its author not been Jane Austen.
Enter filmmaker Whit Stillman. Ever since he pondered and celebrated the values of Jane Austen 26 years ago in his Oscar-nominated examination of the lives of Manhattan’s young Upper East Side elite in Metropolitan, his work has arguably included the most mature consideration of Austen’s themes of morality and manners of any modern filmmaker.Like Austen, Stillman’s works are also very dialogue-driven. It should come as no surprise then that Stillman has taken one of Austen’s inferior works, infused it with fresh, witty dialogue (pun intended), and shaped it into a light, yet deceptively deep, comedy of manners worthy of taking its place alongside other recent cinematic adaptations of Austen.Aiding his efforts immensely is Kate Beckinsale, whose starring turn as Lady Susan is arguably the most impressive performance of her career, expertly balancing the charms and the devious machinations of Austen’s anti-heroine as she attempts to secure husbands for herself and her daughter by any means necessary. She is paired with Chloë Sevigny as Alicia Johnson, Lady Susan’s partner in deception. (Beckinsale and Sevigny both appeared in Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco.)Like Austen’s better work, Stillman draws out what is good, true, and beautiful in the story, elements that triumph in their own way, despite the efforts of Lady Susan, through the tender hearts of her plaything, Reginald DeCourcy, and her oppressed daughter Frederica. There is even a scene where a young parson actually talks about goodness, truth, and beauty as he attempts to boost the spirits of Lady Susan’s despondent daughter by encouraging her to look for those qualities in this world. Though there are certainly many other places those qualities can be found, there are few as enriching, entertaining, and inspiring as the works of Austen and Stillman.