Dear friends and readers,
I confess to a real let-down and disappointment upon my first viewing of the film. Since Love and Friendship is a Stillman film. Given the high literary quality of his scripts, and depth of emotion he invested Metropolitan and The Last Days of Disco with, I assumed he’d do real justice to the sardonic nature of the central hypocrite, Lady Susan (played by an almost unrecognizable Kate Beckinsale — since her face-life her face resembles that of a Barbie doll) and her real potential destructiveness (however thwarted by her lack of money and need of other people’s and their houses) and perniciously cold and egoistic values. I knew it would not be presented as an “inverted protest novel” (the way I had read it recently).
From The Last Days of Disco when Beckinsale had some character in her face and Sevigny was thinner
Beckinsale as a bright hard mean Emma with Samantha Morton as a comically sensitive Harriet (1996 Emma by Andrew Davies)
I’d just taught Lady Susan, so could not easily forget, how hard, mean, at moments raw (towards her daughter, Frederica) Austen’s Lady Susan reveals herself to be in her letters to her confidante, Alicia Johnson (played by Chloe Sevigny whom I regret to say is as wooden and incapable of conveying a witty line as ever — she twice throws away “what man could deserve you” saying straight). The single moment of steel in the 92 minutes was supplied by Stephen Frye as Alicia’s husband: when Mr Johnson sees his wife still in a close relationship with Lady Susan (which he has strictly forbidden) and is confronted with the helpless and therefore hysterical grief of Lady Lucy Manwaring (Jenn Murray) whose husband is adulterously entangled with Lady Susan, he informs hers that he understands the weather in crossing the Atlantic this year is tough. (She has told Lady Susan Mr Johnson threatens to remove her from Lady Susan by taking her back to Connecticut if she does not stopping seeing this friend.)
Yes, Alicia Johnson is made into an American. Ang Lee and James Schamus are on record since their The Wedding Banquet if you want big funding from an American company, especially in the case of costume drama seen as having a smaller audience, a woman’s film in the first place, you are pressured into having one American character. American producers cannot believe the average American will like a film that has no American in it. Thus recently Julian Fellowes made Miss Dunstable in the self-consciously costum-y Dr Thorne improbably into an American.
Instead he has opted for slow artifice, insistence on playful theatricality (each character is announced in a still with their name written across their face, and their familial or work relationship with the other characters), a full-scale imitation or throw-back to 1970s BBC mini-series costume dramas. Everyone and everything is dressed or outfitted, decorated super-elegantly, not just Laura Ashley style but the hats are pure Gainsborough films (1940s costume dramas rather like Saul Dobbs’s The Duchess). The non-sourced music is often 18th century and as ironic background to the closing marriages, Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte. Sometimes he seemed to be imitating Ang Lee and Emma Thompson’s super-successful 1996 bejewelled Sense and Sensibility. Xavier Samuel as Reginald de Courcy’s stiff body gestures, his pained facial expressions, the occasional astonishment reminded me of Hugh Grant’s Edward, only Hugh Grant at the close does suddenly invest his character with a depth of tender affection nowhere felt or seen in this movie.
Stillman imitates the many walking scenes in Sense and Sensibility too. This is what a Jane Austen movie is supposed to be many of its fans feel; this is what they go for: emasculated men, women so gussied up to rape anyone would take excruciating efforts over corsets first. And both times I went I could see the audience was pleased: Beckinsale changed outfits almost every time we saw her, some of them quite lovely, especially her impeccably unruffled hats and curls. It is a relief after the alpha male, action-adventure movies crowding theaters with their 11 second scenes, non-literate scripts, and token women acting as male as their sexual roles permit.
Those reviews which have been favorable have picked up on this unbroken surface, these masks. For example, Adam Thirkwell’s Unserious Austen. Thirkwell is one of those who believes Lady Susan is a work of a teenager (the hagiography that surrounds Austen makes it possible to attribute this kind of sophisticated understanding of the nuances and circumstances surrounding adultery to an 18 year old) and looking at Stillman’s other films, Thirkwell reads the film as about the seriousness of surface; the insistence that the way to live life is by staying shallow, encasing yourself in the frivolous, to be unserious and insist anyone with an emotional attachment that is unchangeable is deluded: that is to take Lady Susan’s view of the world as accurate, or good enough, a way of getting through the actual coldness, meanness, mercenary motives of everyone else.
Except that Metropolitan, Last Days and Barcelona are rather about happiness coming from the integrity of the heart, from intelligent people seeing the limitatons of say worldly success (a great concern of Metropolitan is where you will be placed by your mid-30s). A few essays in Mark G Henrie’s collection of essays on Stillman’s films, Doomed Bourgeois in Love, argue that Stillman is highly unusual not only for his open identification with and interest in the upper class, but because his films are ironic Christian comedies. He is a thinking Christian and sees Austen as an optimistic ethical writer.
Thirkwell omitted a series of scenes not in Lady Susan, and certainly not the lines: except for the local vicar, the unnamed “local curate (played by Conor MacNeill) no one knows which position on the 10 commandments a particular instruction has. This curate is an invented character not in any of Austen’s texts: pious and trying hard to make the Christian message he understands doable. The joke about the 10 commandments is brought back three times. They are also all clueless on the story of Solomon judging which woman is the mother of a baby. Lady Susan alludes to it at least three times too as if it shows just what a good mother she is; she does not seem to know the parable contains two mothers or what happens in it, nor does anyone else. Frederica (Morfyyd Clark) Vernon, Lady Susan’s daughter, presented as unqualifiedly virtuous is so guilty over having finessed her mother’s injunctions not to tell her uncle Charles Vernon (Justin Edwards) or his wife, her kind aunt, Lady de Courcy by telling Reginald goes to church to find guidance and solace and comfort. (Something that never occurs in Lady Susan.) The lighting of the film throughout is exquisitely beautiful, like a golden Vermeer painting, and especially of Frederica reading books here and there, but this scene is luminous. Our new local curate looks at her lovingly, and for a moment I thought maybe Stillman would make this a match. As she emerges, she meets Reginald and he is clueless over why anyone would go to church on any day but Sunday. He asks twice about this peculiarity of hers. But by the end of the movie he has apparently “gotten it,” understood why, for at their wedding, he cites a verse written in 18th century style celebrating Frederica’s virtue, where virtue means religious as well as marital constancy. We then see James Fleet as Reginald’s father, Sir Reginald beaming down on Jemma Redgrave, with slight comic over-doneness (James Fleet like Fyre is able to act the part with comic effect).
Stillman does have to soften the story somewhat. In general until near the end of the movie he sticks literally to events in the book. Then instead of Reginald finally waking up to what Lady Susan is (Reginald is an anticipation of the denseness and delusions of Edmund Bertram) and throwing her off, Stillman has Lady Susan break the engagement. Reginald’s pride is hurt we are told, and he is still in danger of returning to Lady Susan. If he does not, another change is that Lady Susan is pregnant by Manwaring at the close of the film. This gives her a less mercenary incentive: in the book she wanted to marry Sir James to her daughter so with her ability to bully her daughter, she could have (in effect) enforced regular marital sex and children on her daughter by taking the money herself. Stillman adds a silent scene where we see Sir James giving Lady Susan money. He adds wedding scenes which however ironic underneath are on the surface social happy affairs. So too dancing.
So I should not have been surprised at the genre Stillman has opted to use for Austen’s story: highly traditional familial costume drama undercut gently by ironic music and for the thoughtful more critically by what is actually happening and the distance between what’s said and what’s done in the case of Lady Susan. Rich costumes bring audiences in; there are people who insist on the meaninglessness of Downton Abbey for them personally: they are watching for the costumes and to look at the lovely rooms and buildings.
Certainly in this film a number of older grand mansions in various states of decline were filmed (like the 2007 Northanger Abbey by Andrew Davies this film was done in Ireland). And it fits into his outlook, the way he professes to understand Austen. He’s not a typical Janeite though as he finds Fanny Price a likeable (appealing) character in Mansfield Park. He has his heroine in Metropolitan defend Fanny against the strictures of Lionel Trilling as well as the story’s taking seriously whether amateurs should do a salacious play in a private house.
Myself I don’t find this kind of tone characteristic of Lady Susan. Since it is all in letters, she can drop the social mask and reveal herself more than once very directly as a bully, mean, aggressive, with an expectation that everyone will be as nasty she is (rather like Fielding’s Bifil). A couple of time Stillman acknowledges the centrality of letters by having one read aloud, and he shows characters communicating through them, but his theme of the effectiveness of social mask and that Lady Susan never drops it is not true of the book. She can be very raw as can her friend Alicia; these lines are divided in the film:
My dear Alicia, of what a mistake were you guilty in marrying
a man of his age!–just old enough to be formal, ungovernable
and to have the gout–too old to be agreeable, and too young to
die. May the next gouty attack be more favorable
As I read Lady Susan and have listened to it read aloud by Blackstone and other audio-readers, it’s close to Les Liasions Dangereuses, or Stael’s Delphine (1805, with a Madame Susan Vernon as worldly villainess and very bad mother). If you were puzzled why there are so many brief scenes between Alice and Lady Susan — I mean how she does manage to whiz up to London from the country and back again repeatedly: Stillman is presenting the matter of their letters brief scenes. Epistolary narrative can be looked at as inner dramas on a stage with the characters represented by letters in lieu of dialogue.
But I did find it startling to see the transposition of the original language of the letters into dialogue, often without much change. This is very like some of the 1970s film adaptations and the closest in the Austen canon is the 1979 P&P by Faye Weldon, only Weldon had an omniscient novel with characters talking to one another. The effect is stilted, and I could see from other viewers they were growing restless. Since the 1990s these costume dramas have been trying for some compromise between the language of the originals and intelligent and demotic talk of today. The audience were clearly glad to have the more obvious jokes, or seemingly obviously funny lines which they got and laughed a bit too determinedly I thought — as if to feel they were enjoying themselves. I wondered if some other of the lines given to Lady Susan gave them pause, but after all Stillman’s Lady Susan never for once breaks her surface of sweetness and she never offers more of her real values and norms than she has to even to Alicia. So no one leaving this theater could think from this film Austen seriously questioned our society, except maybe if you were seeking something, you could say see how desperate women were. This jusifies Lady Susan’s behavior in part, and it is the way a couple of favorable reviews took the movie. It’s about how women are oppressed.
To me this kind of review is a caricature of the idea: no woman in the movie is ever pictured as less than well-fed, comfortable, and on the surface complacent. If you can control the surface this way, what can the depths be? The one hard statement in the film comes from Catherine Decourcy Vernon (Emma Greenwall) when at the close of the film she calls Lady Susan a cold snake (to her mother). It’s a good thing this utterance does not need an ability to utter irony for Greenwall is another actor in the film who cannot do it; nor Justin Edwards as Frederica’s lummox of an uncle.
The overt joke here is that uncle Charles is astonished that any woman of intelligence could marry a fool, by which he means Sir James Martin (Tom Bennet). At the close we learn that Lady Susan has married Sir James, and as Charles drivels on in his usual “candid” way (of seeing all good everywhere) to say Lady Susan has fallen in love with him, Greenwall turns aside to grin. In Austen’s book, Sir James is not a harmless rattle, but a stubborn and dense man who would not (as Sir James does here) not realize that he’s being cuckolded by Manwaring; as Reginald is a permutation of the obtuse Edmund Bertram so Sir James is a version of Rushworth in Mansfield Park. In the book Frederica is right to dread marriage with this man and in the film to assume she will be just fine with Reginald. After all her aunt Catherine is doing just fine; her uncle does whatever the aunt wants. Stillman has picked up that Charles Vernon is a version of Charles Bingley (P&P), easily led, only left out that he could be led by bad people.
Talk I heard from people coming out both times included asssertions “it’s an odd film.” One woman didn’t quite know what to make of it, but then she’d not read Lady Susan. At least most people leaving seemed to realize there is such a novel, and they realized perhaps that there is another juvenilia called Love and Friendship which because he so likes the title and thinks it appropriate Stillman chose to call Lady Susan. Disingenuousness can work but it’s transparent that someone hoped there might be Austen readers who’ve read the wildly hilarious Love and Freindship and be drawn into the theater that way. In my own anecdotal experience really faithful fans do know of Love and Freindship: they learn bout it in an effort to find more Austen to read, and when they start it’s burlesque wild jokes lead them on to the end.
Nonserious Austen indeed. No one will leave this film disquieted or having been brought to think about our society seriously through an Austen text. The Guardian gives the expected comment: this is a racier, naughtier Austen than we have known. But the second time I knew what to expect. I’ve seen many Austen films. It’s intelligent and literate and if you can extrapolate out from Lady Susan’s behavior and how she is thriving at the close, you can say cold performative people utterly without any humane compassion for anyone, in fact despising anyone who has that as weak fits in just fine with our world. Stillman gives Beckinsale a line just before the credits as she looks at her daughter now married, to the effect she is delighted to see Frederica is becoming more manipulative though where I couldn’t see. This is a more usual transposition into modern talk of a passage in a letter where Austen’s Lady Susan indicates an active dislike or distaste for her daughter; she finds Frederica “contemptible” precisely because she has sincere feelings and acts on them. Doubtless had Lady Susan been able to read Mansfield Park she would have despised Fanny Price too: