“In one’s plight they say is one’s opportunity” says the hilariously irrepressible and manipulative Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) – a recently widowed mother and like many women in that position in 18th century England, now with no fortune, having to survive on her wit, beauty and the good graces of other men as she searches for wealthy husbands for herself and her daughter.
Together, Beckinsale and writer/director Whit Stillman ensure that Love And Friendship charges along at a cracking pace as Lady Susan drives a coach and horses through polite society. This is a much pacier film than the physically languid if emotionally febrile adaptations of Pride And Prejudice and Sense And Sensibility that we often get. Lady Susan’s sense of urgency is catching, and with the film at a zingy 90 minutes or so, she really has to get her skates on.
We first meet her leaving Lord Mainwaring’s large country home after engaging in what might be called in polite society a diversion with the married lord. She heads to Churchill, an estate owned by her brother-in-law Charles Vernon (Justin Edwards) and his wife Catherine (Emma Greenwell).
Susan is not popular with the Vernons but that doesn’t stop her imposing on her relatives. It can’t, as she has nowhere else to go. Soon Susan’s daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) has been expelled from her expensive (fees naturally unpaid) school and turns up at Churchill.
Initially quiet and wan and very much in her mother’s shadow, she is soon quietly winning friends and relatives over in a way that Lady Susan, with the responsibility of ensuring both women survive, is simply unable to do. (Lady Susan has developed an essential practicality in all matters: “thank heavens for our religion” she tells Reginald DeCourcy, “so important in this life and most especially in the next.”)
Reginald, Catherine’s handsome twenty-something brother, is initially smitten with the witty and sparkling Lady Susan, while in turn Susan is still working to persuade her daughter to accept the proposal of marriage from the rich but ridiculous Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett) – “vastly rich, rather simple” but crucially in possession of an astronomical ten thousand a year.
Reginald (Xavier Samuel) has the priggish self-righteousness of the well-to-do gentleman who has done nothing to earn his position. It is of course easy to be idealistic if you live in in a large country house with a ready supply of partridge for dinner.
Sir James, who also appears at Churchill, is at times rather too silly though he is almost kept in check. He is though, genuinely amiable and non-judgemental which makes the very funny joke at his expense at the end, which may well be Lady Susan’s masterstroke, also rather sad.
Kate Beckinsale is sparklingly brilliant, her comic timing perfect. She owns the film, making Lady Susan both a shocking and sympathetic character.
Susan’s imperiousness belies her poverty, and as upper class people have known since the dawn of time and titles, rudeness (which from Lady Susan reaches heights surpassed only by the loftiness of her hairstyle) within the bounds of priority is completely acceptable. Addressing a man who approaches her with “How dare you speak to me! Be gone or I’ll have you whipped” she counters her friend Alicia’s questions as to whether the gentleman is a stranger with “No, I know him well. I would never speak to a stranger like that.”
Women’s dependence on men for money, position and protection, particularly after a husband or father’s death, is a recurring theme with Austen (this is based on her novella Lady Susan) and is usually enough on its own to justify what looks like female scheming.
I considered simply copying and pasting a paragraph I wrote on exactly this in my review of Sense and Sensibility, but Lady Susan instead obliges with her own version as she pulls up young Reginald on his dismissal of silly Sir James as a potential suitor for Frederica. She points out he is doing so from a position of great (male) privilege and riches, and that women without fortune have to endure a lot from men. Marriage really is everything and Susan is determined: “Maria may sob, Frederica may whimper, the Vernons may storm, but Sir James will be Frederica’s husband before the winter is out”.
The action is separated with interludes of ladies in enormous hats bouncing around in small carriages, like a minor diversion while scenery is changed during a stage play. Portions of letters appear on screen in plain type as they are read out, and characters when they are introduced get an on-screen label (sadly sometimes without explanation; I still have no idea why Sir James is considered a rattle).
Sometimes dialogue replaces action. Lady Susan says admiringly of her London-living but Connecticut-bred confidante Alicia Johnson (Chloë Sevigny) “she has none of the uncouthness of Americans but all of the candour” which we could probably have worked out for ourselves if Alicia had been given more to do (she is at first rather wasted, only seeming to be there for Lady Susan to explain to us some scheme or plot device).
The costumes are a delight and by that I mean the dresses, which are to die for (probably of a slight chill after being caught in the rain). I have no idea what Mr Johnson, Reginald DeCourcy or Sir James were wearing and frankly who cares? The ladies look stunning; I admit I partly judge period dramas on whether I would like to make the outfits into curtains and matching cushion covers, and I can certainly picture these draped round my windows and scattered across my sofa.
Alicia’s dresses are beautifully ornamental; in gold, blue and cream she looks like an expensive frieze on a country house bedroom wall. Lady Susan is elegant in black with huge matching hats when in mourning, but as soon as propriety allows she changes into scarlet satin and ruched skirts. The women also have the most intricate and enormous wigs, with cascading curls that must require Rapunzel-like quantities of hair to achieve.
Austen stories are not complete without at least one wedding at the end, preferably two, and the propensity for illness to carry off one’s spouse early means that there are always plenty of characters who can be matched up. Love And Friendship does not disappoint, though at least one of the eventual spouses may do just that.