Most Jane Austen adaptations focus on the romantic aspects of her work. They distill the comedies of manners to that component, with the humor taking a backseat to the passion. I do not believe they are wrong to do so, but that does inevitably lose something from the books. With Love & Friendship, a lose adaptation of Lady Susan, Whit Stillman goes the opposite way. It drains almost all notions of actual romance from the work and focuses on the humor. The result is a magnificently funny period comedy that overflows with wit and charm.
Love & Friendship stars Kate Beckinsale as the widowed Lady Susan Vernon, a woman who is determined to find fitting husbands for herself and her daughter. Of course, her definition of fitting is not exactly the same as what society expects. Lady Susan is a bulldozer running roughshod over the stilted and polite society in which she is trapped. She is charming and charismatic and thoroughly terrible. She is also surrounded, largely, by fools and innocents. Among them is her sweet and earnest daughter Frederica, whom Susan believes is an idiot, and their suitors.
Lady Susan is toying with the young, as in close to her daughter’s age, Reginald DeCourcy. Possibly she intends to wed him, perhaps she is just toying with him. Her affections are also engaged elsewhere. For Frederica, it is the completely vapid, but rich, Sir James Martin. Lady Susan plots and schemes her way through the movie, generally operating several steps ahead of everyone else, beating them at a game they don’t realize they are playing. Lady Susan’s one friend is Alicia Johnson, who has the misfortune, according to Lady Susan, to be married to a man “too old to be agreeable and too young to die.”
There really isn’t much of a plot; the film is all about the interactions between the characters. Lady Susan goes to stay with her late husband’s brother and there she tries to arrange permanent situations for her and her daughter. She flouts custom and manners, all with the goal of securing her place in mind. Save for her sister-in-law, most of the character are blind to how she manipulates them. Even when they appear to have her caught, she turns the tables on them, right up until the end.
The movie shines with its dialogue. The best moment is likely seeing Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett) treat being asked “how do you do?” like he was forced to answer the riddle of the Sphinx. Beckinsale shines as she verbally twists all the other characters around, never once showing an ounce of remorse for any of it. What was most delightful, and shocking given that this was based on an 18th century novel, is that in the end Lady Susan is not punished. She doesn’t necessarily triumph, but neither is she ruined.
After watching a string of big budget failures, there is something wholly delightful in the simple intelligence and humor of Love & Friendship. Well directed and superbly written, you are not likely to encounter a finer comedy this year.