Based on a little-known, Jane Austen Novella called “Lady Susan,” “Love and Friendship” represents director Whit Stillman's re-imagining of a comic tale of a classic scoundrel. Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) is conniving, manipulative, and a notorious flirt, yet despite her notoriety, people still manage to get taken in by her charms. It's a good thing. She is a penniless widow with nothing but her looks and charm to depend on. She sets out to arrange a good marriage for her daughter, and perhaps for herself as well, although she finds it difficult to give up her sexual dalliances.
Lady Susan is a horrible person, yet she constantly has people in her orbit, defending her indefensible deeds. It seems to be a part of human nature to be attracted to a truly, un-self-consciously amoral person. Susan sometimes lies, but for the most part, her atrocities are right there in the open, and she practically dares people to call her on them. She reminds me of the two atrocious characters, Valmont and Merteuil from “Dangerous Liaisons.”
I never would have selected this movie on my own, but my wife dragged me to it, and good for her! This thing is a hoot! Whit Stillman, known for his talky, funny send-ups of modern, high society types is the perfect person to adapt Jane Austen. Beckinsale was born to play Lady Susan, who is similar in many ways to the harpy she played in “The Last Days of Disco,” an earlier Stillman film. You have to give this movie about 10 or 15 minutes to get used to the period language and figure out who all the characters are, but once the story gets going, it is hilarious. The screen really lights up when Tom Bennett shows up as the silly, borderline-retarded Sir James Martin.
I hesitate to use the F-word, but there is something feminist about Lady Susan. As deplorable as she is, her notoriety is based largely on the fact that, in 1790's England, she is a woman. Were she a man, she would use her intelligence to make a fortune, and she would be able to engage in her sexual dalliances as a sideline, with little or no judgment from society. As a woman in that time, however, the only way for her to survive is to find a new husband. As for her sexual peccadilloes, 18th-century England has trouble even conceiving of a woman with such appetites. As the doltish Lord Martin points out, “If a man strays, he's just following his biology. Such behavior from a woman, though, is impossible to imagine.”
4 stars out of 5