“Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor, which is one very strong argument in favour of matrimony.”
Jane Austen wrote these deliciously savvy words in a letter to her niece, Fanny Knight, somewhere between the publication of “Mansfield Park” and the writing of “Persuasion”. During this time, Austen was at the height of her creative genius. And evidently she wrote with as much acerbic wit in her personal correspondences as she did in her novels. It’s a quote that could serve as a neat encapsulation of almost all of Austen’s work. At the very least, in could serve as a pithy abstract to her epistolary work, “Lady Susan” – a novella which she wrote when she was only nineteen years old.
That novella has now been brought to life by Whit Stillman – and there isn’t a filmmaker alive who is better suited for the job. His films are rife with acute observations of the upper classes, often poking fun at elite society and mocking haughty social conventions. And he does all this while bringing that characteristically dry wit of his that served him so well in films like “Damsels in Distress” and “Metropolitan”. So, when it comes to Austen, few filmmakers are more appropriate. And indeed few filmmakers have a more appropriate first name.
“Love and Friendship” revolves around the cunning and conniving widow, Lady Susan Vernon (a name that could so easily have been Lady Susan “Vermin”). She stands like the subject of a painting by Gainsborough and is perfectly played by Kate Beckinsale in a career-best performance. Lady Susan wishes to marry into fortune and for her daughter, Frederica (played by Morfydd Clark), to do the same, much to Frederica’s dismay. She will stop at nothing to get what she wants and colludes with her American buddy, Alicia (Chloë Sevigny), to make sure that she does. But her glorious frocks, radiant complexion, and delightful one-liners (“Facts are horrid things”) mean that we cannot help but take pleasure in Lady Susan’s duplicitous efforts to manipulate those around her for her own personal gain – even her own daughter.
In “Love and Friendship”, marriage is the only option with which a woman can escape poverty. “I could teach”, Frederica tells her mother, only to be met with snigger and patronising eyes. The child’s reasoning is infallible of course, and her innocence and naivety cut through the ludicrous hypocrisy of what society has already predetermined for her. But it is this youth and naivety that give others the right to laugh when she says she could provide for herself in this world. She is then left with no other choice: to confront the prospect of marrying Sir James Martin (played by Tom Bennett) – a character who’s as bright as a broken bulb, yet utterly luminous when on-screen.
There are many delights to be had in “Love and Friendship” – the buttons, the breeches, the boasting, the bitching – but perhaps the greatest delight is taking simple pleasure in the sparkling screenplay: it is a marvel of narrative and character, forming the foundation of a beautifully mannered comedy of manners. The dialogue is as sharp as Lady Susan herself and the film is a welcome and worthy addition to the burgeoning collection of Jane Austen screen adaptations – thanks, mainly, to Kate Beckinsale and the unwavering wit of Whit.