MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
Directed by Whit Stillman. Starring Kate Beckinsale, Chloë Sevigny.
Although Jane Austen’s novels were of a particular time and place – Great Britain in the 18th century – her gifts as a writer and her witty musings on courtship, marriage and the class system have never gone out of style. And, if there was ever a chance that they would go out style, modern adaptations abound, including Seth Grahme-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible, this year’s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice set in current day Cincinnati, Ohio.
Every one of Austen’s five novels has been turned into films and TV mini-series, so it was only a matter of time before creative types would go digging around for Austen ephemera. When Austen was nineteen years old she wrote Lady Susan, a short novel told in the exchange of letters, left unfinished and not published until decades after Austen’s death.
The story is a slight one, to be sure. Lady Susan Vernon (Beckinsale) is recently widowed and in need of some financial security. She sees a possible suitor in the handsome Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel). Susan would also like to find a wealthy husband for her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark). Lady Vernon has been less than a good mother to her daughter and has little respect for her, but sees a possible mate in Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett). There are a couple of small problems: Sir Martin is clearly a fool and Frederica isn’t particularly interested in him.
Throughout the movie Susan confides in Alicia Johnson (Sevegny), her American friend, and their conversations serve as commentary to the unfolding schemes.
It’s all quite clever and charming, which is what I expected when I heard that Whit Stillman was doing the adaptation. He is one of my favorite directors and all four of his original film comedies (Metropolitan, Barcelona, The Last Days of Disco and Damsels in Distress) depict upper class people fretting over the problems of the privileged (very Austen-like). Lady Susan is conniving and duplicitous, but she is also a character that earns some respect for her survival skills in a culture in which women were destitute without male benefactors. By the end of this brief story, some compromises will be made but Susan will emerge victorious.
A set of air quotes around the title of this movie would not be wrong (it’s that cynical) but if you like clever dialogue and subtle humor, this might be the thing for you. Granted, there are not too many laugh-out-loud moments in Love & Friendship, but the film gave me many smiles and chuckles.
Two halos: A brisk and entertaining trifle with good performances galore.
One pitchfork: Snide comments; the mildest of sexual innuendos.
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Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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