Whit Stillman directs and scripts Love & Friendship (2016), a satirical, witty, and wickedly funny period piece adapted from the Jane Austen novella “Lady Susan.” It turns out Austen and Stillman are a great match; he’s been making comedies of manners in an American vein since Metropolitan and his dry wit and sharp observations of social interactions bring out the satirical edges of Austen’s work.
Kate Beckinsale, a veteran of both Austen (in the 1996 TV movie Emma) and Stillman (The Last Days of Disco), stars as the scheming, self-involved Lady Susan Vernon and she marries the sensibilities of the two beautifully. Newly widowed and with a nearly-grown daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) in finishing school (as much to keep her out of the way of Susan’s schemes and games as to give her a marriageable education), she’s on the prowl for a new man, an activity she treats like a social bloodsport. She uses wit as a weapon and laces her offhanded insults to potential rivals with venom.
Susan flirts with married men and uses social convention with tactical precision to survive as a perpetual houseguest to hosts who abhor her personally. She’s a character you can’t help but enjoy, if only for her brazen manner and sexual audacity. Tom Bennett is the cheerfully clueless Sir James Martin, a society idiot with inherited money that Susan eyes as a match for Frederica. He’s a grinning nincompoop utterly oblivious to his complete lack of native intelligence or worldly experience, and Bennett pulls it off with good-natured earnestness. Chloë Sevigny (also from The Last Days of Disco) is Susan’s American friend and confidante and is just as mercenary, but her actions are kept in check by a disapproving husband (Stephen Fry), the only character able and willing to stand up to Susan. Needless to say, she is not a welcome guest in their household.
To say it’s the funniest Austen adaptation ever made is both true and an understatement. At times the film seems like a classic Hollywood slapstick comedy dropped into a costume drama. Susan provides the cutting wit, Sir James the broad comedy and giggling silliness, and filmmaker Stillman the social frame and elegant world to make it all work. It’s funny and wise, brimming with irony and bubbling with life. It is a gem.