Whit Stillman, expert chronicler of privileged youth, adapts the Jane Austen novella Lady Susan for his first period film, Love & Friendship. The material is a perfect fit for the film-maker behind the elegant comedies Metropolitan, Barcelona and most recently, Damsels in Distress. His pantheon of highly literate heroines would be at home in Austen’s world of manners and unrequited passions.
At the outset of the story, Lady Susan takes up temporary residence at her in-laws’ grand countryside estate in Churchill, with the intention of securing her financial future by marring Catherine’s handsome younger brother, Reginald De Courcy (Xavier Samuel). Her plans are thwarted, however, by the surprise arrival of her daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark), a timid girl who’s just run away from school. Sensing that Frederica’s presence might pose a threat to her wooing of Reginald, the ever-scheming Lady Susan arranges for her daughter to be courted by Sir James Martin (a scene-stealing Tom Bennett), an older man who can’t appear to keep his mouth shut (he’s described as “a bit of a rattle” by Catherine).
Lady Susan’s only trusted confidante throughout this is her close American friend, Alicia Johnson (Chloë Sevigny), in whom she confides all her plans. Sevigny, who last played opposite Beckinsale in The Last Days of Disco, is afforded a smaller role than she had in that now-classic comedy. Still, it’s a joy to see the two paired together again for an onscreen reunion, 18 years in the making.
Beckinsale is a hoot to watch as a character with no redeemable qualities, except for her cunning ability to get what she wants. You can’t help but love Lady Susan because of the evident joy she takes in being so duplicitous. Her energy is infectious.
Despite its period trappings, Stillman’s film never feels stilted, largely thanks to his bracingly modern heroine who takes no prisoners, and makes no apologies for her conniving behavior. When Lady Susan deadpans a line like “Facts are horrid things,” you can’t help but laugh.
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