Love and Friendship is a patchwork of pedantics, scrupulous in its satirical portrayal of the paradoxical Lady Susan. She is a brilliant antagonist, bright yet crass, a witty bumbler, oxymoronic at every curtsey. Whit Stillman’s adaptation has reinvigorated Austen’s voice for the twenty-first century selfie generation, portraying a woman just as self-absorbed as a Kardashian in the context of Georgian England.
The film establishes itself as a tongue-in-cheek piece of cinema immediately, opening with the use of intertitles to introduce the cast of characters, a technique executed with the same comedic flair as a theatre production. Its consistent use throughout also develops the self-aware, ironic tone of the film, characteristics which parallel the personality of the antagonist. At first blush it watches like an anachronism of self-awareness, but is indicative of Austen’s youth at the time of writing this indulgent piece of plot; a plot which is unfortunately paled by its overbearing focus on the equally overbearing Lady Susan.
In the opening scene Lady Susan, a widow, is witnessed fleeing the home of Mr Manwaring for reasons we can safely assume to be scandalous, inviting herself to stay with her brother-in-law, Mr Vernon, much to his wife’s despair. There she meets Mrs Vernon’s brother, Reginald DeCourcy, and the intricacies of Lady Susan’s paradoxical personality are realised as she ventures to seduce him in cahoots with her American friend Alicia Johnson, played by Chloë Sevigny, without further compromising her tarnished reputation. Her daughter Frederica, meanwhile, is nowhere to be found, enjoying the benefits of a ‘fine education’ that Lady Susan dotes over so unconvincingly in the film.
Kate Beckinsale’s performance as Lady Susan is outstanding; she performs the dialogue with the flippant, superior air required, conveying the contradictions of her character without hesitation. The audience understands this woman through her lack of pathos, and the lack of pathos she inspires. Indeed, though titled ‘Love and Friendship’ because of its linguistic parallel with popular Austen classics, it is a title self-aware with irony. Lady Susan utilises the two abstracts to the purpose of her own manipulations, though she has little understanding of them. This has a binary impact: she has all the illusion of intelligence, but is revealed to be fundamentally stupid. In a perfectly situated piece of dramatic irony, she repeats practiced fragments of knowledge, often wrong, frequently in the film to separate parties, appropriating them to social situations in order to elevate perceptions of her own intellect and titivate herself against the scandal that blackens her name. This demonstrates a canny understanding of social manipulation on Lady Susan’s part, but it is a case of style over substance.
Though this is a fascinating piece of social commentary provided by Austen, the focus on Lady Susan bores in the latter half of the film, with plot twists becoming overshadowed by such focus, rendering them random. Its downfall is that it tries to be too clever for too long, straining the story to the detriment of audience experience. This is reflective of its canon being a novella. To put it euphemistically, stuff does happen, but this takes a backseat to the constant pursuit of amusement supplied by the antagonist, who becomes increasingly unlikeable as the minutes drag on. The more she toys with those around her, including her daughter, the less we want to listen to her selfish spiel that deflects and recasts blame, with the full-effects of such behaviour being ironically ignored for further focus on her meddling. The film contradicts, like Lady Susan.
Her ‘brilliance’ is juxtaposed by the idiocy of the man she is coaxing her unwilling daughter to marry, Sir James Martin, who is played with delightful silliness by Tom Bennett. He, along with the DeCourcy parents, acted by James Fleet and Jemma Redgrave, are playful cogs in the machine, characters which cement the film’s comedic candour.
It is its fundamental purpose as a comedy that renders Love and Friendship a success, its witty flourishes pervading the regressing popularity of Lady Susan and remedying it, styling her a caricature. Indeed, it is not a film so much as a pantomime, its own ridiculousness salvaging itself from my criticisms. Its intention is to be fun, a little farcical, even random, and is legitimised by its form as satire. Stillman has crafted a lesser-known Austen work (it was posthumously published) and distinguished it from her classical, popularised narratives, without losing any of Austen’s fastidiousness. Love and Friendship cannot be called anything but a budding film classic as a result, despite its faltering enjoyment in the penultimate scenes.