“Does this woman always get her way?” demands a character in Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship, a smashing adaptation of Jane Austen’s perky novella Lady Susan. The woman in question is, of course, the unscrupulous Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale). If she were a man, she might be called a rogue or a swine. Being a woman, though, Lady Susan avoids those particular assaults on her character (though not others). She also usually gets her way.
Writer/director Stillman has made films before about insular societies — the social sphere of the debutantes in Metropolitan, the glittery nights of the club-going book editors in The Last Days of Disco, the busy intricacies of the small college in Damsels in Distress — and he excels at honing in on the complex rules required to navigate them. In Love & Friendship, the orbit is even smaller and the rules even more stringent: The film is set in Austen’s Regency England, where scandal is ruinous and making one’s way as a single woman of no fortune perilous.
From Lizzie Bennet to Emma Woodhouse to Elinor Dashwood, Austen’s heroines are smart, resourceful and able to negotiate some of the constraints that rule their lives (even that wet noodle Fanny from Mansfield Park, poor soul). But none of them can match the extravagant manipulations of Lady Susan, a widow with a marriageable daughter. Lady Susan is extremely attractive, and she’s not averse to the idea of finding a new husband for herself and not above devastating the hopes and dreams of others in pursuit of her desire.
As for her situation: “We don’t live, we visit,” she explains of her habit of house hopping (which is cheaper than feeding and entertaining yourself in your own rented flat). As the film opens, her latest “visit” has gone awry, mostly due to her dubious relationship with the gentleman of the house, Mr. Manwaring. Amid recriminations and tears on the parts of not one but two of the ladies there, she flees to the home of her in-laws, the kind Charles (Justin Edwards), her late husband’s brother, and his rightfully suspicious wife, Lady Catherine (Emma Greenwell).
Lady Catherine is not at all happy to have Lady Susan flitting about as a guest with no departure date. Her unease grows when she senses interest on the part of her handsome brother Reginald (Xavier Samuel), who claims he only wants to see the renowned flirt in person. But soon he’s deep in conversation with Lady Susan and defending her actions. Lady Catherine fears he will attach himself — and thus his inheritance — to the unworthy lady, who has left a trail of unseemly rumors behind her and is far too old.
Except for its short conclusion, Austen’s novella is epistolary, and Stillman also uses letters to push his swift-moving plot along (he has also written Love & Friendship: In Which Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon Is Entirely Vindicated, a reimagination of the original work). The movie is witty and engaging, with great work from all the cast, notably the hilarious Tom Bennett as a dimwitted suitor (he is fascinated by the existence of peas). It’s not romantically satisfying in the way of Sense and Sensibility or Pride and Prejudice, but it’s remarkable for the fact that Lady Susan is just so shameless — and never punished for her excesses.
The love part of Love & Friendship is played for laughs; love in this era among such people is a business arrangement, not a romantic match. The true affection here lies in the friendship between Lady Susan and her ally Mrs. Alicia Johnson (Chloë Sevigny), who aids and abets Lady Susan in all her misdeeds. Stillman reunites his Last Days of Disco stars to great and subtle effect. Their friendship has run afoul of Mr. Johnson (Stephen Fry), but his disapproval and threats can’t kill it. In such a suffocating society, where else can a woman turn for understanding?
The subtext here is, of course, that society has forced Lady Susan’s hand — she has to resort to all her antics just to survive. Watching Beckinsale evade and persuade and charm and infuriate is an utter delight. You might not want Lady Susan in your home, but she’s a force of nature in this amusing film.
Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Chloë Sevigny, Xavier Samuel, Emma Greenwell, Justin Edwards, Morfydd Clark, Tom Bennett, Stephen Fry.
Writer-director: Whit Stillman. Based on Jane Austen’s novella “Lady Susan.”
An Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions release. 92 minutes. Some thematic elements. Playing at area theaters, including O Cinema Miami Beach, which offers ticket buyers a tea party courtesy of Lemon City Tea from 3-4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.