It was the comedy, not the romance, in Jane Austen's work that drew writer-director Whit Stillman to her unfinished novella "Lady Susan."
Stillman spent years adapting the collection of letters into "Love & Friendship," a talky tale centered on the manipulative, self-serving ways of an attractive young widow.
Romance is but a trifle for Lady Susan Vernon, considered "the most accomplished flirt in all England," and her callousness breeds comedy, briskly delivered here in stylized language. The wit comes so quickly, the film demands a second viewing.
The heartlessness of the central character, though, makes that option unappealing. It's a testament to the performance, writing and direction, and she should be so odious, but sometimes hanging out with a sociopath can be a drag.
"Love & Friendship" (the title borrowed from a different Austen story) reunites the stars of Stillman's 1998 film, "The Last Days of Disco." Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny again play friends obsessed with relationships and reputation, except this story takes place at least 100 years earlier (Austen's novella was set in 1790).
Sevigny is Alicia Johnson, the only remaining friend of the elegant, unscrupulous Lady Susan, played by Beckinsale, commanding and effortless in every scene.
In opulent costumes by Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh and a mountainous tumble of curls, Beckinsale's Lady Susan is immaculate in her appearance and delivery of Stillman's well-crafted prose. She leads an ensemble cast that includes Jemma Redgrave, Tom Bennett, Xavier Samuel, Morfydd Clark and Stephen Fry.
After her flirtations stir up drama at home, Lady Susan escapes to the country for an extended visit with some distant relatives. She foists herself on Charles (Justin Edwards) and Catherine (Emma Greenwell), her brother-in-law and his wife, and immediately begins looking for a husband — the richer the better, naturally — for both herself and her reluctant daughter, Frederica. Susan chooses kooky Sir James Martin (Bennett) for her daughter, and sets her own sights on Catherine's handsome and significantly younger brother, Reginald DeCourcy (Samuel). Both situations create upheaval for all involved.
As Susan tries to manipulate circumstances in her favor, she huffs, "Facts are such horrid things."
Meanwhile, Alicia's husband has forbidden her from being friends with the scandalous Susan. That doesn't stop them from meeting at intervals along the way, when Lady Susan recaps for Alicia (and the audience) the various romantic goings-on. Her tone is always serious, but the content of her long speeches is irrepressibly comic as she details the trouble she's caused.
Stillman embellished Austen's novella beyond its epistolary form into both the screenplay and his own novel (due this summer), so it's hard to know how much of Lady Susan's character was drawn by each author, but she's wholly modern in that she exploits the social norms so many Austen characters embrace. And while it's refreshing to see such an unsympathetic female character, it's difficult to empathize with anyone so divorced from their own humanity.
Lady Susan may be a progressive woman — especially in the 1700s — but she's so steely and cold, any feeling person would have trouble connecting. Is she completely invulnerable? Does nothing warm her heart? The film makes clear that neither lover nor kin even come close to the pleasure she derives from her own self-satisfaction, and that's hard to laugh at for long.
What: "Love & Friendship." Directed by Walt Stillman. An Amazon Studios release
With: Kate Beckinsale, Chloë Sevigny, Xavier Samuel, Tom Bennett, Stephen Fry, Jemma Redgrave, Morfyyd Clark, Justin Edwards, Emma Greenwell
Star rating (out of four): •
MPAA rating: PG — parental guidance suggested; some material may not be suitable for children — for "thematic elements"
Running time: 1 hour 33 minutes
Playing at: Crandell Theatre (Chatham, N.Y.) and Images Cinema (Williamstown)