Having spent my Master’s in Cambridge writing a dissertation about Austen and Laurence Sterne, I was looking forward with particular delight to reviewing the film adaptation Love and Friendship. I am glad not to be disappointed.
First of all, however, let me give honour where it’s due. I cannot for the life of me understand why the film is entitled ‘Love and Friendship’, when it is entirely based upon another piece of Austen’s Juvenilia— Lady Susan. I was confused even watching the film’s trailer, which had already made me guess that the references to Love and Friendship would be scarce and that Lady Susan would be the main subject of everyone’s attention. I had reread both Lady Susan and Love and Friendship the day before seeing the film to be sure of catching all the references I possibly could. I can safely assure you that whereas the plot of the film follows Lady Susan very faithfully, it contains no reference to Love and Friendship at all. The only possible reason for the film’s title is that all of Austen’s Juvenilia in Penguin Classics are published as ‘Love and Friendship and other Youthful Writings. ’ But is it really necessary to insult the audience’s intelligence and assume that no one would take the trouble to see a less well-known piece of Austen’s Juvenilia? The injustice becomes even more glaring after seeing the film, in which Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale) reigns supreme.
Lady Susan is an unusual heroine. She is a beautiful widow in her thirties, and as enchanting as she is cunning. She has also acquired somewhat of a bad reputation— the film begins, as the novel does, with Lady Susan being thrown out of the Manwarings’ residence, because she has managed to seduce the master of the house and make his wife furious. Undeterred by this misfortune, Lady Susan is determined to charm her brother-in-law and his household. She is particularly interested in charming an honest and young gentleman who is heir to his father’s estate. Lady Susan’s plans are thwarted, however, as her daughter Friederike appears on the scene. Friederike insists upon the importance of marrying for love and refuses to marry the rich fool her mother has secured for her…
What follows is a comedy of manners, and Whit Stillman manages to maintain the gentle artificiality of a stage play: characters are introduced with subtitles announcing their name on screen. The film is full of musical pieces from the period, and scenes are filmed almost as stage sets. Yet it is only Lady Susan who seems to realize that the world she inhabits is essentially a stage: ‘What a delightful pose’, she exclaims more than once. Kate Beckinsale is excellent in her role as Austen’s most unconventional heroine, and she positively outshines everyone else. It is hard at times to extend one’s sympathy to the rest of the world— as after all they are so gullible that, from Lady Susan’s perspective, they have only themselves to blame. Chloë Sevigny is very good as Lady Susan’s friend Alicia Johnson, and the only casting I would quarrel with was that of Catherine Vernon, who struck me as a sensible woman in the novel , whereas she struggled to gain any of my sympathy in its film adaptation. There were some additions to Austen’s manuscript which were perhaps unnecessary, but on the whole most of them were merely elaborations on things she had left unsaid. Thus the stupidity of some characters was elaborated on, and the issue of Lady Susan’s dissipation was made very explicit by the film’s ending.
Indeed, the ending scene of the film was the only scene that struck a chord of dissonance from Austen’s whole. Whereas Lady Susan the novel ends in a happy ending which punishes the wicked and rewards the good that, as Janet Todd points out, is reminiscent of Mansfield Park (in that it is aware of its own artificialness); Love and Friendship ends more like Woody Allen’s Whatever Works, with a self-approving glance at its own conclusion. I suppose that times have changed since Austen’s day, and one’s characters must be treated less dismissively than one would like. Perhaps that’s a pity. Though I dare say I am very old-fashioned about the subject. In any case, the film is a pure pleasure, and if a Jane Austen purist finds still more pleasure in its written original then she has only herself and Austen to blame.
If you would like to get acquainted with Lady Susan before seeing the film, here’s the link to its entirety on Pemberley: The Full Text of Lady Susan