Based on Lady Susan, a little-known novella by Jane Austen, Love & Friendship exposes Austen fans to a different side of the beloved novelist. The renowned writer introduces the world to the widow, Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) who must seek refuge at the English country estate of Churchill. Without admitting to it openly, this lady of society has come to an end of her financial means and is looking for deliverance from her situation. Love & Friendship shows how this woman of sordid reputation and conniving tactics works her way into the lives of this innocent country family. In her attempt to maintain her lifestyle in the late 1700s, Lady Susan works to find the best suitor for herself and for her daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark).
Austen’s beautiful turn of phrase is played against the backdrop of English high society in this humorous and scandalous narrative. Lady Susan pulls back the curtain of her central character and sets a new standard for creative manipulation.
The mere mention of a new Jane Austen film conjures up thoughts of period wardrobes, prolonged dialogue and long walks in the countryside. Love & Friendship does incorporate these elements — with a marvelous twist. Writer and director Whit Stillman has found a gem in Austen’s frightfully enjoyable character, Lady Susan.
In the majority of Austen’s other stories, this lady in waiting would be a key adversary or at best, a peripheral character. Yet, Austen and Stillman have brought her to the front of the stage throughout this devilishly, whimsical journey, and Beckinsale seems to relish in every moment. Love And Friendship‘s writing and acting are marvellous to experience from the opening sequences. What would be considered detestable dialogue in most other Austen novels is handled with conniving hilarity, as we enjoyably stroll through the pastoral countryside and the streets of London.
Regardless if audiences come to love or hate Lady Susan, it is impossible to avert the eyes from her as she spins her brilliant web of impish deceit. Wittingly or unwittingly, from the innocent cousins of the country to the sophisticated societal folk of London, every character gets pulled into her plan. Beckinsale masterfully works with the brilliant script and manages to convince those on and off screen that she is able to manipulate anyone into her whiles. Australian actor Xavier Samuel (Fury) and Morfydd Clark (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) are perfect in their roles as the youth that are flung together by the matriarch’s ways. Chloë Sevigny (Big Love) convincingly portrays Susan’s mischievous and conniving compatriot, revealing the essential need Lady Susan has for an agreeable sounding board to ply her plans. Within this well chosen cast, there is none better than the comedic stylings of Tom Bennett (PhoneShop) as Sir James Martin. He steals every scene with his on-screen buffoonery that brings the essential levity for this perfectly balanced journey into an absurdity that becomes a joy to behold.
Love & Friendship may make some Austen fans uneasy, because it does not fit the established expectation of the novelist. It also will not appeal to those seeking a chase scene or an alien invasion during this blockbuster season at cinemas. Yet, it will satisfy the needs of those seeking a true diversion that provides the perfect combination of culture and the opportunity to be a bit naughty, too.
What are some of the bigger questions to consider from this film?
Where is the line of influence and manipulation? In the words of the apostle Paul to his trainee, Timothy.
“But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.” (2 Timothy 3:1-5)
This lays out the difference between those who are truly trying to manipulate, as opposed to graciously persuading or influencing others. If your motives are selfish and will hurt others, it is going down the path of manipulation. Yet, for those who are merely trying to give out their wisdom and do it in a loving and gracious manner, it may be worth listening to their words.
What is surprising about Love & Friendship is that the barrier for audiences to see this is the proposition of Jane Austen as the writer. This is not typical Austen, which might disappoint the Austen faithful, but will appeal to those who love great dialogue and mischievous fun. This period piece is a gem worth finding this year.
Passages on persuasion and manipulation:
Matthew 7:15 , Matthew 24:4, Ephesians 6:10-18, 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, 2 Corinthians 11:14, 2 Timothy 3:1-5
Russell Matthews works for City Bible Forum Sydney and is a film blogger