Beware of Lady Susan Vernon. Though lovely as an English rose, step too close and her thorns may do some serious damage. Joyously embodied by Kate Beckinsale, the centerpiece of Love & Friendship Lady Susan is drop-dead gorgeous--if only she would drop dead.
Writer/director Whit Stillman (auteur of comedy-of-manners trilogy Metropolitan, Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco) reportedly spent years obsessing over Jane Austen's unfinished novella Lady Susan. Stillman has produced few film projects of late, but Love & Friendship—as tart and refreshing as an early summer pitcher of lemonade—has been worth the wait. Bundled with art direction by Louise Mathews (BBC America's Ripper Street) and costumes from Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh (Brideshead Revisited), Stillman's script is the best Austen big screen treatment since 1995's Sense and Sensibility.
There has been a steady glut of film and television adaptations of Austen's novels, but so many have of them have been little more than museum pieces. Here, Stillman shows some respect for his source material and reminds us how comically adept he is—and Austen was.
The opening sequence of Love & Friendship strikes a welcome silly tone. Similar to the opening of a cheesy prime time TV soap opera (think Dynasty or Dallas), we're introduced to the main characters in a series of title cards in which each actor, posing with ridiculous seriousness, is framed by their character's name and some whimsical identifier, such as "a divinely attractive man," "his obliging wife" or "a bit of a rattle" (translation: blithering idiot).
However, it is Lady Susan who pulls all the strings in Love & Friendship. She's a widow—not the grief-stricken kind—who continues to dine out on her good looks and charm. Her behind-closed-doors behavior follows her, however, forcing Lady Susan to flit from mansion to mansion, always overextending her welcome and nearly always whispering something awful under her breath about her gracious hosts.
"Darling, we don't live. We visit," Lady Susan tells her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark). "We're entirely at the mercy of our acquaintances."
When she's not conducting a torrid affair with a married lord at a nearby estate, Lady Susan is trying to snag a husband for her reluctant daughter (and maybe one for herself, too). Seduction and deception follow, and the whole hot mess could be serialized into a 1790s version of The Real Housewives of Britain.
Beckinsale is teamed once again with Chloe Sevigny. The two were coincidentally cast together in 1998's The Last Days of Disco, another orgy of gossip from Stillman. Unfortunately, Sevigny is miscast in Love & Friendship, and all the costumes and wigs in Britain can't mask her modernity. Fortunately, this misstep is a small matter in an otherwise entertaining film.
One interesting side note: Stillman was so engrossed in this project, he told The New York Times that to coincide with the release of Love & Friendship, he is releasing his own hard-copy novelization of the same story, including all 41 letters from Austen's Lady Susan. Stillman even went as far as telling The Times he thought the original Austen novella "was flawed," and that he might produce a better story. It's audacious hubris, tremendous commitment or both. Whatever it is, Lady Susan would have been delighted.