Let’s face it, part of the reason we all flock to period drama adaptations of Jane Austen’s work is that to a certain extent, we know what to expect. We know it’s likely to be beautiful, with rich costumes and sweeping music. It’s also likely to be slower paced than regular cinema, taking its time over character developments to advance the plot in small motions.
Love & Friendship, last year’s adaptation of Austen’s early novella Lady Susan, disregards those unspoken rules almost completely. Luckily, it does so with charm.
Turning around, it laughs at those rules in a manner that we can imagine Austen herself. After all, this was the woman who wrote famously in a letter: “I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.” Her cynical wit peppers adaptations but the romance angle has ultimately always dominated. Love & Friendship meanwhile, happily pastiches the rose-tinted dramas and let Austen’s razor-sharp observations come to the fore instead.
Even the title isn’t quite right, taken from a childhood tale that Austen wrote for her family. The plot instead follows the far less interesting sounding Lady Susan, about an opportunistic widow (Kate Beckinsale), who is pursuing beneficial matches for both her and her timid daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark). However, Lady Susan isn’t going to simply settle on an easy choice, using her charms to bewitch a number of eligible men before finding the very best option for a life of comfort.
It boasts an interesting cast, from Australian Xavier Samuel, who plays the naive Reginald DeCourcy, to American Chloe Sevigny, as both feature in their first Austen period drama. Some, such as Beckinsale and Jemma Redgrave, are already old hands however, having appeared in adaptations of Emma and Mansfield Park respectively. It makes for a refreshing change, when often so many television dramas are dominated by the same people. The inclusion of Sevigny also adds for a cynical joke not present in the source text, where much is made of her overseas origins and accent.
Written and directed by Whit Stillman, best known for 1990’s Metropolitan, nothing is precious. Although there is some joy to be found in Lady Susan’s change from black mourning clothes to bold jewel tones, the costumes often lack consistency fitting with the period. Likewise, the music is treated as a scene changing tool, rather than an amplifying addition to the action on scene. Everything is fast paced, to the point where complex character connections have to be summed up in wry subtitled introduction shots.
Instead what we’re here for is to enjoy the sharp conversations and the scheming heroine. Kate Beckinsale clearly delights in her role, embodying just the right amount of charm in a woman who should really be difficult to like at all. Jenn Murray also has a particularly notable appearance as the spurned wife of one of Lady Susan’s admirers. Already having proved her talent briefly in Brooklyn last year, her shrill fury is played perfectly for laughs.
Love & Friendship is unlike any other direct Austen text adaptation, refusing to bow down under the weight of classic conventions and transforming it into an adaptation for complete newcomers, as well as established devotees. It’s funny and cynical, unconcerned with romance but dedicated to the wry undertones that permeate those timeless novels. Best of all, Jane Austen would love it.