May 202016

The film and the book are all in good fun, in the spirit of “mocking affection” that is a indelible part of Whit Stillman’s artistic vision

Love & Friendship, directed by Whit Stillman. At AMC Boston Common, Coolidge Corner Theatre, Landmark Kendall Square, and West Newton Cinema.

Love & Friendship: In Which Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon Is Entirely Vindicated by Whit Stillman. Little, Brown and Company, 288 pages, $25.

Kate Beck in "Love & Friendship."

Kate Beckinsale as Lady Susan Vernon in “Love & Friendship.”

By Tim Jackson

It feels as if a pairing of Jane Austen and Whit Stillman was inevitable. Both are wry social critics who specialize in careful observations of middle-to-upper-class life: Austen’s fiction dissects the snobbery of the Georgian era; Stillman’s comic films gently skewer the idealism of the budding American bourgeoisie. In Metropolitan, Barcelona, and The Last Days of Disco, the director genially undercuts the pomp and pretense of those exercising late 20th century privilege. His interest in our craving for attention, affirmation, status, and appearance dovetails well with Austen’s satiric dismemberment of a genteel but pitiless pecking-order. With his new film Love & Friendship, the director has blended his modern sensibility with the storyline of a little known and unpublished early Austen novel.

Kate Beckinsale is impressive as Lady Susan Vernon, a young widow who visits the estate of her in-laws to wait out festering rumors about her alleged affairs. The stunning woman dazzles with her beauty and manipulates everyone around her with effortless charm and biting wit. Beckinsale played Emma in the BBC’s 1996 adaptation of that Austen novel and played the role of Charlotte in Stillman’s 1998 film The Last Days of Disco. So it should be no surprise that the actress, who also appears in huge Hollywood productions, can handle the verbal acrobatics of this Stillman/Austen hybrid with aplomb. Lady Susan’s ulterior motive is to secure a husband for herself and a future suitor for her reluctant daughter, Frederica. Of course, problems multiply: Lady Susan complicates matters when she attracts the attentions of the debonair, but insecure, Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel), the rich and profoundly silly Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett in a brilliant and sparkling comic performance), and the handsome, but married, Lord Manwaring (Lochlann O’Mearáin). She also manages to inspire considerable consternation in the owners of the estate, Lady DeCourcy (Jemma Redgrave) and Sir Reginald DeCourcy (James Fleet), while driving Lord Manwaring’s wife, Lady Lucy (Jenn Murray), to a state of absolute hysteria. Lady Susan’s best friend is Alicia Johnson, reinvented by Stillman as an American ex-patriot from Connecticut. The character is played by Chloë Sevigny, who was also featured with Beckinsale in The Last Days of Disco. Johnson the a ward of Mr. Johnson (Stephen Fry).

Director/author Whit Stillman. Photo: Tim Jackson.

Director/author Whit Stillman. Photo: Tim Jackson.

The film’s source is an epistolary novel, a tale told through a succession of letters. Originally titled Deceived in Freindship [sic], Austen wrote it between the ages of 13 and 18 as an amusement for her family. Stillman has rethought the novel, under the title Love & Friendship: In Which Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon Is Entirely Vindicated. His rewrite redeems Lady Susan, who comes off rather wicked in the Austen narrative. The narrator of the Stillman novel is Rufus Martin-Colonna de Cesari-Rocca, the son of Juliana, the sister of the buffoonish Sir James who, by way of marriage, is partial toward defending Lady Susan. Stillman’s novel has the virtue of incorporating some of the best lines of dialogue from his film.

Though not as intricate as Austen’s original, Sillman’s redo helps clarify Austen’s characters and their motivations while adding useful, albeit humorously prejudiced, commentary. Both book and film start with a list of Principle Personages. The volume’s Genealogical Table is also helpful. The original Austen letters are published in the new version’s Appendix. Stillman, writing as Rufus Martin-Colonna de Cesari-Rocca, comments on these missives, penned by a women he refers to as “the spinster authoress.” The ‘author’ (Stillman writing as Cesari-Rocca) then accuses Austen of acting like ‘a counterfeiter’ and altering the letters to put Lady Susan in a bad light. Cesar-Rocca also defends the goofy Sir James Martin (who is a relative): “The spinster authoress describes Sir James as punctuating each phrase with a laugh; this is a common low tactic of disparagement.” Near the end of the yarn the reader will discover that Cesari-Rocca is dealing with some questionable circumstances himself (“the entire controversy regarding my financial and legal matters”).

The film and the book are all in good fun, in the spirit of “mocking affection” that is an indelible part of Stillman’s artistic vision. We gambol in the gap between pretense and truth. I spoke to the director last week, and he suggested that the preferred sequence would be to read his novel, then Austen’s letters, and finally to view the film. Stillman describes the process as a ‘weaving’ of texts. It is a clever, post-modern interplay of literary and cinematic material: an over 200 year-old epistolary novel by a classic writer in her youth, a mischievous reinvention of Austen, a highly amusing screenplay, and lush filmmaking. The exhilarating result is a unique treat for fans of both Jane Austen and Whit Stillman.

Tim Jackson was an assistant professor of Digital Film and Video for 20 years. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate, and has also has worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed three feature documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater; Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups; When Things Go Wrong: The Robin Lane Story, and the short film The American Gurner. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read more of his work on his blog.


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