Whit Stillman (Metropolitan, Barcelona) returns with his fifth film in over 25 years, a snappy, savagely funny adaptation of Jane Austen’s unfinished novel Lady Susan, and a rare Austen movie that doesn’t even require a particular appreciation for her works to enjoy.
In the late 1700s, Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) arrives at her in-laws’ estate to seek refuge from the salacious gossip about her that happens to be doing the rounds. While there, the recently-bereaved Susan charms and manipulates the estate’s residents in an attempt to find a husband for both herself and her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark).
It’s been said that Stillman’s films are typically “comedies of mannerlessness”, and this one certainly doesn’t break that pattern. Focused intently on Beckinsale’s brilliantly acid-tongued protagonist, as she smarmily puts down those around her while engineering a favourable situation for herself and her child, Stillman conjures up a beguiling juxtaposition of so-called “high society” with some truly appalling behaviour.
Beckinsale, who hasn’t taken many major dramatic leaps on screen, gives quite probably her best performance to date as the novel’s title character, a seemingly unflappable Machiavellian figure who takes quiet delight in calling the shots while rarely breaking her temperament.
It certainly helps that she’s joined by heaps of terrific support, with not a single player putting a foot wrong; the likes of Chloe Sevigny and Xavier Samuel give memorable turns, though arguably the job of scene-stealer goes to Tom Bennett, whose goofball Sir James Martin is played to perfection.
If there’s more than a touch of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon in the film, it’s certainly no mistake; Stillman has admitted this in interviews, and from not merely the British countryside but also the music, detached shot selection and tone, it feels pretty much like what an Austen adaptation from Kubrick might’ve ended up as.
Austen devotees will love the wit and the deconstruction of period society, while even those fairly sour about the author may find themselves unexpectedly entertained by the rat-a-tat dialogue and savage war of words that transpires.
Love & Friendship is in cinemas now