Love and Friendship is a welcome respite from the noisy yet underwhelming blockbusters of this season that have taken up residence in multiplexes across the country. Fans of Jane Austen’s film adaptations may find themselves pleasantly surprised, gone is romance for the most part but in it’s place is a rebellious cheeky sense of humour and Kate Beckinsale with her best performance in years.
She stars as Lady Susan Vernon, a very different type of Austen heroine. The film begins with Lady Susan being kicked out of the Manwaring estate. Such words weren’t of course used in that time but the gossip that could result from such an event could be a great deal more vicious. Susan Vernon is a ‘lady’ who reputation precedes her as she arrives at the home of her brother-in-law Charles Vernon (Justin Edwards) and his wife Catherine (Emma Greenwell). Catherine and her brother Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel) are well aware that Susan Vernon is a lady of ill repute despite what Charles says, however Reginald is a man you see and Lady Susan knows how to deal with most men unless they are as she notes “Too old to be governable and too young to die.” Soon the earnest Reginald is quite taken with Lady Susan as she attempts to marry her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) off to the insufferably buffoonish but sufferably wealthy Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett). Sir James has come to the Vernon’s estate Churchill as Frederica has run away from the boarding school that Lady Vernon packed her away to.
Part of the charms of these films can be found in how the stories expand with a growing roster of characters in the ensemble becoming relevant to the plot. These include Susan’s best friend Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny) and Stephen Fry as her disagreeable husband Mr Johnson. For some this will prove a special treat reuniting director Whit Stillman with the two stars of his The Last Days of Disco 18 years later, even more special considering Sienna Miller was originally cast as Lady Susan. The chemistry between the two is most enjoyable here, Susan Vernon is a sly woman who trusts Mrs Johnson with all her schemes and private feelings and their dialogue is deliciously polite while speaking ill of others. Why Susan who seems aware nobody can be trusted shares so much perhaps suggests a need for friendship above all else. After all as cruel and manipulative as Susan Vernon proves to be, she is navigating a world that can be cruel to women indeed and despite using her daughter as a pawn Lady Vernon points out to Frederica in one key scene the options available to women in their position and how to make the best of it. Women did have their own power in domestic circles back then, at one point Catherine Vernon informs her husband he has business in London because she wants to go there and after a moment of perplexity he nods and agrees.
There are themes here that were ever present in Austen’s work, the way young women could have their reputation destroyed in one impetuous moment by following their heart while young men could survive the scandal and how fortunes could be lost with a deceased husband leaving you at the mercy of the kindness of snobby relations but the key difference in Love and Friendship is the heroine. Lizzie Bennett dreams of being an independent woman respected her for her smarts nobly and patiently overcoming the patriarchy of the day before ultimately marrying for love. Lady Susan is not noble or patient, she’ll have her cake and eat it too, the film based on a posthumously published epistolary novel Lady Susan it may surprise some to learn it was one of Austen’s earliest writings.
Love and Friendship differs from other Austen adaptations in other regards too. Shot on a relatively low budget mostly in Ireland, the film has no sweeping vistas, soaring musical scores or romantic lighting. It is shot rather matter of fact, framing everything in a realistic low key manner although the costumes by Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh are gorgeous and well presented. Pay attention and you can see Lady Susan dresses reflecting her changing circumstances. Title cards and musical cues introduce characters in a modern and humorous way but like everything else in the film is done in an elegant and understated way. Only Tom Bennett as Sir James Martin goes big as a man not without good intentions but rather socially awkward and well…moronic. Bennett plays his stupidity just the right side of good natured that he is a delight for the audience whenever he appears onscreen.
This is Kate Beckinsale’s film though, after some period pieces as a cute young ingénue early in her career she made a splash with a pair of leather pants kicking ass in the rather unworthy Underworld. Since then she’s played the hot wife/girlfriend or hot action babe in her most high profile American films; Van Helsing, Total Recall, Click, Contraband, The Aviator, Pepsi Ads, Serendipity, Underworld: Awakening and Pearl Harbour. The once enrolled Oxford student here is back in a period piece but instead of a rose cheeked innocent infatuated with her beau, she’s a kittenish vixen who fails to blush no matter what she is being accused of. Remaining calm and clever under all circumstances Lady Susan outwits those against her plans and remains insistent of her own good character with so much confidence that you admire the character for her own steadfastness and defiant self-interest. You wouldn’t want to be a relative of Lady Susan but she’s entertaining to watch from beginning to end. I note with interest despite her wit and composure that the object of her affections the married Lord Manwaring (Lochlann O’Mearain) and a huge driver of the plot remains little seen throughout and is given no dialogue. No doubt though, he looks like a right prick.
Love and Friendship is Austen but not as you know it and Beckinsale is as good as you have ever seen her. Hopefully this is a sign of things to come in the next stage of her career.