Those who head into Love & Friendship expecting a classic Jane Austen romance may be shocked to find a story in which love is in scarce supply. Yet this isn’t an act of revisionism so much as a reorientation; many adaptations of Austen’s novels home in on their witty passion, but romance in her literature is always a matter of rules and regulations, a hidebound social act that prompts genuine love only occasionally and to the immense surprise of all parties involved. Whit Stillman’s film simply withholds that moment of true connection, instead pulling focus onto the social satire that informs Austen’s romantic comedies. When crossed with Stillman’s gift for arcane but fleet-footed dialogue, Austen emerges not merely as the founder of the modern romantic comedy, but the godmother of the screwball.
The film’s protagonist, Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale), wields etiquette and obligation like a master swordsman. Widowed and forced to rely on the kindness of everyone in her social circle to get by, she’s perfected the exploitation of the dizzyingly intricate class rules of her time. Arriving on the doorstep of friends, distant relatives, and anyone else who will take her, Susan immediately ingratiates herself as an indefinite fixture in households and assures her new caretakers that any discussion of payment for this favor “would be offensive to us both,” a line she repeatedly says so quickly than any objections are immediately overridden by bafflement.
Where other Austen heroines chafe against the limits of their age, Susan simply twists them to her own ends. She uses her charms and beauty to connive the sort of dull, rich, “appropriate” men that the likes of Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennett seek to avoid altogether. She targets the spineless affability of her brother-in-law, Charles (Justin Vernon), so thoroughly that even as the chaos of Susan’s presence mounts he finds ways to justify her behavior, as does her other brother-in-law, Reginald de Courcy (Xavier Samuel), whom she seduces and cajoles in one of her many simultaneously running chess games to secure a husband and, more importantly, his salary. Watching her talk to men feels less like flirtation than cross-examination, in which she systematically finds every inconsistency and loophole in speech to solidify her position in society.
If the men stumble and gawp at Susan’s blatant power plays, women present tougher mental fronts to her schemes. Susan’s sister-in-law, Catherine (Emma Greenwell), sees through her right away, but sits by helplessly as Susan mooches off of her husband and woos her brother. Even Susan’s daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark), struggles against her mother. In a traditional Austen story, Frederica would be the protagonist, a relatively plain, intelligent young woman openly resistant to the idea of the marriage of station that Susan proposes in the form of Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), a show-stealing dolt who cluelessly leans into every conversation with gleeful expectation only to ruin it with his air-headed interjections and attempts to follow a train of thought. Frederica’s horror at this match is logical, but for once this defiance is the antagonistic force of an Austen story instead of the motivation, forever driving Susan crazy as Frederica foils her mother’s best-laid plans.
Susan doesn’t fight everyone, though, and ironically the film’s most acidic scenes may be the ones that display her camaraderie with friend Alicia Johnson (Chloë Sevigny). Their typical chats consist of mutual commiseration over the failure of gout to send Alicia’s old, dour husband (Stephen Fry) to his final resting place and a shared prayer for the end to come soon. Stillman films their conversations with efficiently mounted and edited shots, a far cry from the pastoral beauty that categorizes most productions of Austen’s work. But the blunt functionality of the direction stresses that Love & Friendship isn’t an escape into gentility, but a depiction of social trench warfare in which inherently powerless women gain strength and placement through attrition. No Austen adaptation, even the most revisionist ones, has ever felt so vicious. And perhaps none has ever gotten the author so right either.