Love and Friendship is based on an unfinished novella by Jane Austen. Called Lady Susan, it is written as a series of letters and is thought to be one of her earlier works, although only posthumously published.
The film, adapted by Whit Stillman (Metropolitan, The Last Days of Disco), is a beautifully shot period piece that you wish was longer than its 90-some minutes.
Lady Susan, played by Kate Beckinsale, is recently widowed, short on funds and increasingly frowned upon for her affair with a married man.
She retreats to the country house of her in-laws, where Reginald deCourcy, the younger brother of her sister-in-law, arrives to meet “the most accomplished flirt in all England”.
Lady Susan decides that marriage to him would secure the financial future for her and her daughter and so sets about charming him.
However, what ensues is not a breeches and bustles romantic comedy. Everything may well have a superficial coating of the manners of 18th century well-to-do society, but it has a lot more of Les Liaisons Dangereuses about it than you would expect from recent Austen adaptations.
Lady Susan uses and manipulates everyone, including her daughter, while scheming for her survival, stating that, “Facts are horrid things,” as she negotiates her way around them. However, Lady Susan’s plans look to be foiled by her daughter running away from boarding school and joining her.
If I were to outline the merry go round of a plot that follows — who is Lady Susan going to marry, who is she going to marry her daughter to, will she continue her affair, will her scheming be found out? — it would sound ridiculously confusing. However, when watching the film that’s not the case at all.
Stillman uses what I initially thought would be an annoying tactic of introducing each character as they enter the film by writing their name on screen with their main character or physical trait. In fact this works — it gets you thinking about how Lady Susan will exploit that trait.
In addition, the film is visually so easy to watch and well performed that you are able to focus on the plot and character twists.
Kate Beckinsale in particular rises to the challenge of playing Lady Susan. Yes, she’s scheming, manipulative, more concerned with her financial stability than anyone’s feelings, but Beckinsale manages to create a character who should be unpleasant (her sister-in-law refers to her as a “genius of the evil kind”) yet is still very much the heroine.
Perhaps her only redeeming quality is her ability to get her own way and you find yourself wanting her to come out unscathed. It’s well worth watching the film to find out if she does.