Considering the glut of onscreen adaptations of Jane Austen’s six completed novels—more than 60, only 10 of them worth watching—one is inclined to dread the news that yet another is on its way.
Even with Emma Thompson writing the script and Keira Knightley playing the role of Elizabeth Bennett, Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice didn’t live up to expectations—proof that the most formidable ingredients for an Austen adaptation can still amount to a lackluster production, if not a plainly awful one.
“Lackluster” does not apply to Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship, a new film based on an epistolary novella written by Austen in the 1790s, Lady Susan.
When describing the movie to people who haven’t seen it, one reaches for words like delightful, witty, stylish, wildly funny—all of which apply to Austen’s novels, but Stillman one-ups the author’s pointed social satire in this laugh-out-loud comedy.
That said, even the most die-hard Austenites may not have read her hilariously barbed, almost Wildean novel of letters about a beautiful, unscrupulous, wickedly manipulative widow named Lady Susan Vernon, who is hell-bent on securing her own future by marrying off her daughter. Austen was not yet 20 when she wrote the novella and did not live to see it published.
She abandoned Lady Susan without giving it the proper ending she gave the rest of her novels, leaving Stillman to finish the story in his own way. Indeed, the slim novella’s epistolary structure allowed Stillman to round out scenes and beef up characters in his version of the story, which he has been working on since 2004.
He insists that most of the film’s dialogue—zingers exchanged so swiftly and nimbly that they challenge the viewer to keep up—was lifted from Austen.
“About two thirds of it is from Austen, and this is some of her finest comic writing,” Stillman said over Skype, speaking to The Daily Beast from his home in Paris. “I thought I was using her exact gemlike phrases, but in reviewing the novella I did see that I boiled them down. Her funny sentences are more complex than the funny sentences in the movie dialogue.”
Stillman, an urbane-looking 64, is noted for films that observe, as dryly and nimbly as Love & Friendship does, mores around class and friendship, among the young and gilded.
The Harvard-attending son of a politician in JFK’s administration, Stillman-the-director has thus far hopped from the Upper East Side (Metropolitan, 1990) to the lovelorn men of Barcelona (1994), then Studio 54 for The Last Days of Disco (1998), and the young grads of Damsels in Distress (2011).
Until now his canvases have been cast in roughly modern times, and mostly focused on young, well-off people. Love & Friendship is a conventional period drama, but with Stillman’s trademark crispness and dry slyness etched into it. Young people are present but not the focus. If you’re expecting or wanting the warm historical bath of Downton Abbey, you will likely get a chill.
On whether he watches the hit show, Stillman says, “The shows everyone talks about I try to see one episode but not more. I think it seemed very well done and I love Maggie Smith, but I had the idea that I’m better off not getting immersed in other people’s shows. I don’t want to be too aware of what other people are doing, especially when it’s very good.”
As played by Kate Beckinsale, Lady Susan’s epistolary flair comes across in a gift for the spoken word, particularly the verbal wit on display in scenes with her only true friend and confidante, a wealthy American woman named Alicia Johnson (Chloë Sevigny).
Lady Susan’s reputation as a duplicitous charmer and schemer is anathema to Mr. Johnson (Stephen Fry), who repeatedly threatens to send his wife back to Connecticut if she doesn’t break off their friendship. “You’ll be scalped!” Lady Susan cries, declaring Mr. Johnson “too old to be governable, too young to die.”
Lady Susan conducts most of her wily operations at the Churchill estate owned by her oblivious brother-in-law Charles Vernon, though his wife Catherine Vernon (née DeCourcy) is skeptical of her even before she arrives.
When Catherine notices that her younger brother, Reginald DeCourcy, is bewitched by Lady Susan’s beauty and charm, she sounds the alarm in a letter to her elderly parents.
The scene-stealer—or, more accurately scene-chomper—is Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), who is “vastly rich and rather simple,” Lady Susan tells Alicia. Sir James is besotted with the young and virtuous Frederica, though the affection is not mutual. Sir James is as profoundly, hilariously stupid as he is wealthy.
When he first arrives at Churchill, he explains in broken, tortured English, to his perplexed hosts that he had difficulty finding the estate, since he was looking for either a “church” or a “hill.”
Later, he marvels at the “novelty vegetables” on his plate over dinner: “Tiny green balls! What do you call them?”
“Peas,” Reginald replies, unamused and baffled.
“It really could be absolutely nothing in another performer’s hands,” Stillman says, adding that Bennett came to audition wearing “Dickensian garb, so he seemed like a character from The Pickwick Papers. Then he just did amazing things with the material that inspired me to write other comic scenes in the novel.”
Stillman’s own love affair with Austen began with heartbreak. At the age of 18 at Harvard, he was a “depressed sophomore—brutally dumped after being led on cruelly by a girl. It was really sad!”
He laughs. “I was in a total funk and about to drop out and go to Mexico and learn Spanish. I had never read a gothic novel in my life and I picked up a copy of her strange novel, Northanger Abbey. I read it and I hated it and told everybody [he says in a mocking teenage voice], ‘Jane Austen’s overrated. She’s not any good. Why do people like her?’”
With both Austen and Evelyn Waugh, he “hated them at first” and then both went to be his favorite authors, and the themes that featured in their novels feature in his movies.
When I mention that his films are comedies of manners, Stillman says he dislikes the sobriquet.
“Manners as a word has degenerated to mean which spoon to use, which fish fork to use. Stephen Fry said something really interesting in an interview he gave on set where he talked about manners and morals. Comedies of manners goes back to the Latin word ‘mores,’ which means morals. So I view them more as comedies of morals but also as comedies of identity.”
Both in Austen’s novels and in Stillman’s films, identity is inextricably linked to class.
Austen’s 19th century readers would not delight in a morally dubious, extravagant character like Lady Susan manipulating others’ (mis)fortunes like a puppeteer.
Such characters were not Jane Austen heroines. But Love & Friendship allows Lady Susan to indulge her desires for money and out-of-wedlock romance with impunity. Did Stillman purposely make Lady Susan more likeable in the film than she was in Austen’s novel?
“People say that she’s more likable in the film, but I just went with the material. And her early, 18th century work was less moralistic than her later writing.
“But she became more morally concerned. She thought Pride and Prejudice was too light and airy, so then she went on and did Mansfield Park which is a beautifully written moral novel. I’m not a lawyer for amorality, but in cinema you do want the character to be fun to watch.”
Whatever themes of class and influence seem to permeate his films, Stillman says he is not obsessed with these themes. “I think that’s only the case with Metropolitan. I don’t think I’m more ‘obsessed.’ I just notice a lot of things. I think it would be better to say that social climbing in many guises—such as self-righteous one-upmanship in supposedly non-social domains—is a major engine for human activity.” And, aided by Stillman’s intelligent observation, a major engine too for a lot of sharp, wincing humor.