Love & Friendship*, Whit Stillman’s adaptation of Lady Susan, has had its premiere at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, and with the assistance of our friend Miss W., who lives in Utah (residents get early access to tickets), and frequent flyer miles, we were able to see it. We’ve been pretty excited about this movie since we first heard about it a few years ago, because we knew with Stillman at the helm, we were likely to get a film that was literate and funny and in the spirit of the original, and we are pleased to report that’s just what happened. Love & Friendship is a fast, funny film full of sparkling dialogue and sumptuous sets and costumes. It is fully worthy of Jane Austen’s genius, and we enjoyed it tremendously.
Kate Beckinsale is perfect as Lady Susan Vernon. Still young and beautiful, her manner is soft and winning and her soul as calculating and self-centered as can be. She utters every word with conviction, because she has no doubt anything she says will be received as she wishes. It’s like she’s a mythical character whose words cast a spell over the listener, and make them believe whatever crazy tale she’s trying to sell; though it should be noted that the magic works better on men than on women. She’s a terrific character and must have been so much fun to play, especially as written by Jane Austen and Whit Stillman. Lady Susan’s letters, so full of witty chatter and sharp-tongued commentary, have been rendered into dialogue with the bubble of fine champagne. You have to pay attention, because nearly everything she says is something delightful, and if you let it get by you there isn’t time to go back–they’re on to the next wonderful bit.
While standing in line to be admitted to the screening, the Editrix and Miss W. both expressed an interest in seeing how Chloë Sevigny (Mrs. Johnson) would fit into a period film. She doesn’t attempt a British accent, and in one of the small additions to the original story, it is explained that she is originally from Connecticut, where her family were Royalist sympathizers during the American Revolution. Alicia and Lady Susan must meet secretly for walks and carriage rides; Mr. Johnson has forbidden his wife to see Lady Susan at all under threat of being sent back to Hartford. This occasions several snarky references to Connecticut, which Miss W., a native of that state, found particularly hilarious (and Stillman, who is also from Connecticut, said in the Q&A that he put those bits in on purpose).
Tom Bennett, as Sir James Martin, absolutely steals the film as the stupidest thing in nature. The poor fellow tries so hard to sound sensible but is simply incapable of it. He is fall-down hilarious and the audience loved him. (In the Q&A, Stillman indicated that Mr. Bennett embraced the role so thoroughly that he wrote some more dialogue for him.) All of his scenes are pretty much invented as the fellow doesn’t utter a word in the novella as far as we can remember. Sir James is silly and hilarious in the best tradition of Jane Austen–think Mr. Collins or John Thorpe–and between the screenwriter/director and the actor, they do a splendid job.
The rest of the cast is fine as well. We were particularly pleased by Morfydd Clark as Frederica and Xavier Samuel as Reginald De Courcy, who were both comfortable in their characters and the period setting. Jemma Redgrave and James Fleet as the elder De Courcys both have slightly expanded roles and brought all their veteran chops in outstanding performances. Emma Greenwell and Justin Edwards as Catherine and Charles Vernon and Jenn Murray as Mrs. Manwaring also did a great job, and we saw regretfully too little of the always delightful Stephen Fry as Mr. Johnson.
The ending is changed slightly from the novella–no spoilers, and it’s not a material change, but an addition that gives it a little unexpected twist, and makes Lady Susan seem even more dastardly than one might think.
The audience at the screening we attended giggled at the funny bits, and laughed with gusto at Sir James Martin’s silliness. They also loved one of the Editrix’s favorite lines from the novella: “Facts are such horrid things!” (though it is said by a different character–it still works exceedingly well).
As it is an adaptation of an epistolary novella, the characters meet more often than in the novella, bringing the dialogue to life. A few minor characters are added, for instance, a companion for Lady Susan is briefly introduced so that Lady Susan can share with the companion her plan to insinuate herself with the Vernons.
The music is just wonderful and so fitting to the period and the film. We understand a soundtrack will be available, and if you are a soundtrack sort of person, as is the Editrix, we recommend picking it up.
We wonder, though, if there will be universal embrace of this film in Greater Janeiteland. It is quite faithful to the original, though there are some added characters and scenes, and we think only the nittiest of nitpickers will find fault with it from the standpoint of fidelity to Austen’s original. However, L&F is not the kind of film that most people would think of when they think of a “Jane Austen movie.” The setting is Georgian (roughly late 1780s from what we could tell), so no high-waisted Regency gowns, and more to the point, there is no grand romantic story. Many critics of “Jane Austen movies” have pointed out that nearly all the film adaptations focus on the romantic story–the marriage plot, if you will–to the exclusion of much of Austen’s sharp humor and social commentary. There is a romance in L&F, and it’s slightly more romantic than in the novella, but as in the original, most of the characters look upon marriage less as the result of romantic love than as a business contract. However, that’s the book that Jane Austen wrote, and we are absolutely thrilled that Stillman presented it that way. We think the fact that it is an independent production, as befits a film presented at Sundance, meant that Stillman wasn’t forced to cater to a desired audience, for instance one that would expect to swoon over heartfelt romance. Don’t expect that in L&F, because it’s not there.
Also, it’s sort of a typical Stillman movie in that there are a lot of people sitting around and talking. Action is confined to carriages rolling up to and away from gorgeous country estates. People walk and talk within the houses and out on the lawns wearing gorgeous costumes and huge, elaborate Georgian hairstyles. It’s delightful to look at, but it’s a quiet movie–not quiet like the 1995 Persuasion adaptation, which is more introspective than L&F, but quiet like real life. The plot is moved forward almost entirely by dialogue. We liked it very much, but are not sure that it will be to everyone’s taste.
But if you’re looking for a truly amusing film for grownups who love Jane Austen for the way she wrote as much as what she wrote, Love & Friendship will be just your cup of tea–a wee bit bitter, but well-sweetened with dripping honey, just like Lady Susan herself.
*Apparently the title has acquired an ampersand.
Disclaimer: the Editrix went to the Sundance Film Festival and the L&F screening of her own choice and completely at her own expense. The producers did not contribute or facilitate her attendance in any way.
ETA: Made a few corrections and clarifications, and added information about the soundtrack.