“He’s very silly, but he has a charm of a kind.” “He’s lively; he brings a new angle to things.” The man being described thusly is an extremely foolish if conveniently wealthy 18th-century gentleman by the name of Sir James Martin, but the kind words might just as well apply — without a hint of euphemism, and with far more honest approbation — to the director of “Love & Friendship,” a supremely elegant and delicately filigreed adaptation of Jane Austen’s epistolary novella “Lady Susan.” With his love of fine clothes and finer diction, Whit Stillman proves an unsurprisingly intuitive fit for Austen, but he also knows just how to give her pointed social satire an extra stab of wink-wink postmodern drollery without breaking the spell. Starring Kate Beckinsale as Lady Susan, the most irresistibly devious of Austen protagonists, this inspired marriage of two distinctive stylists should become a delectable arthouse/VOD draw for Roadside Attractions and Amazon Studios.
“Lady Susan” was written early in Austen’s career (probably around 1794, according to scholars) but published posthumously in 1871, and “Love & Friendship” pointedly refers to the source material as “unfinished,” perhaps in reference to the rather hasty, impatient manner in which the author concluded her otherwise delightfully barbed experiment with the novella-in-letters format. To the possible chagrin of Austen purists (though with “Pride & Prejudice & Zombies” around the corner, they probably have bigger fish to fry), Stillman has not only finished the story in his own way but also adapted the work with a free hand, doing away with its epistolary structure and granting breezy yet full-bodied shape to scenes and incidents that Austen mainly described through a series of variably reliable narrators.
Certainly the more casual Austen buff may be surprised to encounter, in Lady Susan Vernon (Beckinsale), the sort of duplicitous and diabolically self-interested heroine who seems not to have sprung from the same pen as Lizzie Bennett and Emma Woodhouse. Beautiful, sophisticated and recently widowed, Lady Susan is also an inveterate schemer — “the serpent in Eden’s garden,” in the words of her sister-in-law, Mrs. Catherine Vernon (Emma Greenwell), who alone seems to see through the woman’s pleasing manners and the unfailingly seductive effect they have on the men in her midst. And so she’s immediately suspicious when Lady Susan decides to pay an extended visit to her and her husband, Mr. Charles Vernon (Justin Edwards), at their countryside estate of Churchill. There, not coincidentally, she has a mutually charming first encounter with Catherine’s handsome and eligible younger brother, Reginald De Courcy (Xavier Samuel).
As Lady Susan describes in her regular visits to her similarly duplicitous best friend, Mrs. Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny), she’s determined to secure her financial future by marrying Reginald. And her extended flirtation with her young suitor is a master class in manipulation: She knows just the way to disarm his prejudices, flatter his ego, and lure him into dismissing the occasional rumors of her indiscreet past as vicious slander. But Lady Susan’s plans are waylaid by the sudden arrival at Churchill of her daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark), who has run away from school, and who clearly lives in fear and dread of the mother who has never shown her honest affection.
Sensing that Frederica might lure Reginald away from her, Lady Susan retaliates by inviting the aforementioned Sir James (Tom Bennett), whom she’s determined to foist upon her daughter, never mind that he seems grossly unsuitable even under the more venal codes of the era. (“But marriage is for one’s whole life!” Frederica protests. “Not in my experience,” her mother sniffs.) As Catherine and Charles forge a sympathetic alliance with Frederica, Lady Susan pulls out all the stops and finds ever new ways to twist the not-as-smart-as-he-thinks-he-is Reginald around her finger — right up to an amusingly bawdy and twisty conclusion that not only softens Austen’s more punitive ending, but also confers a sweet measure of grace on just about every character in the story.
Stillman has been devising elaborate comedies of manners since his 1990 Sundance-premiered debut, “Metropolitan,” and while Austen’s plotting lends him the sort of intricate, well-tooled narrative machinery that has eluded some of his more free-form verbal farces (including 2012’s captivating “Damsels in Distress”), the style of the telling remains recognizably his own. He takes the inherent sophistication of Austen’s worldview and introduces just the right note of sly, self-deflating mockery, starting with his technique of regularly pausing mid-scene to introduce his dramatis personae with names and tongue-in-cheek character descriptions — a helpful acknowledgment of the difficulty in keeping track of so many interconnected lords and ladies.
Elsewhere, he gets in an amusing dig at the novella by having Catherine’s parents (Jemma Redgrave and James Fleet) try to read one of their daughter’s letters, a tedious task that they finally abandon, in much the same way that “Love & Friendship” dispenses with Austen’s epistolary approach. The ingenuity of the adaptation lies not only in its distillation of Austen’s formal prose into an arch yet accessible idiom, but also in the way he plays with the characters’ at-least-partial awareness of their own absurdity. Admittedly, Sir James seems wholly oblivious to what an imbecile he is, and Bennett’s grinning, garrulous turn is one of the movie’s foremost pleasures, whether the character is rambling on about his knowledge of “advanced agricultural methods” or making reference to “the Twelve Commandments.”
But Lady Susan is an altogether more slippery creation, and Beckinsale, coolly imbibing one of the most satisfying screen roles of her career, lends the character an edge of ironic self-appreciation. When she deadpans a line like “Facts are horrid things” or “I am done submitting my will to the caprices of others” (something she has almost certainly never done), it’s hard not to sense the character giving the audience the subtlest of winks from beneath her broad-brimmed hats and expensive furs.
As the biggest name in the cast, Beckinsale magnetizes the screen in a way that naturally underscores how far ahead of everyone else she is, an effect that doesn’t always work to the movie’s advantage: Greenwell’s Catherine is radiant but too genteel to be a plausible threat to Lady Susan, and while the role of Alicia has been duly Americanized for Sevigny’s benefit, the actress never seems sufficiently comfortable in this setting to justify her on-screen reunion with her “Last Days of Disco” co-star Beckinsale. (As Alicia’s shrewd husband, Stephen Fry makes you wish he had a bit more to do.) But Samuel and Clark stand out nicely as the young and very impressionable Reginald and Frederica, respectively, and Stillman keeps the dialogue delivery so fleet and frothy (he could be directing “His Lady Friday”) that his ensemble is allowed little room for error.
While “Love & Friendship” hums along so mellifluously that you could easily enjoy it with your eyes closed (especially with the tuneful accompaniment of Benjamin Esdraffo and Mark Suozzo’s piano-and-strings score), it’s really best not to, given the high level of visual craft on display. Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh’s lovely costumes and the exquisite furnishings of Anna Rackard’s production design are seen to gorgeous effect in Richard van Oosterhout’s luminous images. Whether he’s following the actors in smooth walking-and-talking tracking shots outdoors or observing the faint play of firelight on their faces indoors, he brings a rich cinematic luster to a project that, whatever the final state of Lady Susan’s fortunes, succeeds in giving Austen and Stillman the union they deserve.