Love and friendship are themes that run through many of Jane Austen’s books, so it wasn’t a huge surprise to me that the seemingly blandly titled new film Love & Friendship was based on a little known Austen work from early in her career. It didn’t take me long into the screening, however, to realize that name was actually used ironically. This film is a bit about love and a little about friendship, but to be accurately titled, it would have needed to be called Cunning & Manipulation or Genius & Deceit. Possibly Delusion & Desperation. If they really wanted to hit the nail on the head, they would have called it Comedy & Complicated Hairstyles. But there’s no fun in a straightforward title, and Love & Friendship is, above all, fun.
The film is based on an epistolary novella by Austen called Lady Susan, and it tells the story of Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale), a beautiful and “diabolically genius” widow who protects herself by manipulating the people – particularly the men – around her. She is working on marrying off her daughter and finding herself a wealthy new husband, while keeping herself housed and fed in the meantime. I don’t think it spoils much to say that for a film heroine, and particular an Austenian one, Lady Susan is remarkably static. She doesn’t grow, she’s never humbled, and if she is redeemed, it is only by the masterful skill by which she navigates her societal bounds. But thank goodness she does not become nobler, since in Love & Friendship, that which entertains Lady Susan entertains the audience as well.
You can almost never go wrong with Austen as a co-writer, but director and screenwriter Whit Stillman deserves credit for staying true to the cleverness in both the dialogue and form of the story. He deserves even more kudos for also enhancing it by taking the letters from the book and developing them into fully formed scenes and interactions. Jane Austen is consistently clever and comedic in her writing, but the humor in Love & Friendship is stronger and sharper than I’ve seen in not only any Austen adaptation, but also in most movies I’ve seen in the last few years. Even as the gorgeous costumes and views of the countryside are familiar, the story is far less romance and far more satire than Pride and Prejudice or its ilk, and it’s a welcome change.
That said, the humor doesn’t entirely erase the reality of the time period, and while nothing about Love & Friendship is dour or depressing, there are moments in the film when Lady Susan’s situation and motivation are understandable and even a bit sympathetic. “We don’t live, we visit. We live entirely at the mercy of our friends and relatives,” she tells her daughter Fredrica when trying to convince her to marry a wealthy man she doesn’t love. It’s a quick reminder that Lady Susan and Fredrica’s options are limited by the laws and societal rules of the period. The moment passes just as quickly as every other in this rapid-fire screenplay, but lines like this one sit in the background as context throughout the film. Even as we judge Lady Susan’s methods as self-serving and heartless, her motivations are unarguably practical.
There’s also an interesting feminist lens through which to consider Love & Friendship. Lady Susan is gorgeous, brilliant, and well-connected. She’s also selfish and callous. She flirts with men of all ages and martial statuses, and aside from her American friend Alicia (Chloe Sevigny) who is also something of a societal outsider, women in her social circles tend to be appalled by her. Not that she loses any sleep over their rolled eyes and veiled insults. Although it might cost her an invitation for tea, Lady Susan is smart enough to know that it doesn’t matter what women think of her – the men, after all, hold all of the real power. She isn’t interested in building shallow friendships or in furthering the cause of womankind, and in the context of her life, maybe that’s fine. Or maybe it’s not. It’s been awhile since I took a Gender in Literature class, so it’s probably not for me to say.
At any rate, there’s something truly moving about a story of growth and redemption, but there’s something much more fun about a story where no one grows, no one is redeemed, and people are measured not by their strength of character, but by their savvy in manipulating others. Love & Friendship is, luckily, the latter.