“A lady’s imagination is very rapid; it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony in a moment.” — Jane Austen, “Pride and Prejudice,” Chapter VI
Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale, “Total Recall”), the main protagonist of Whit Stillman’s (“Damsels in Distress”) period comedy Love & Friendship is determined to get what she wants without any pretense of hiding her ambitions. With a bow to Machiavelli, she has perfected the skill of turning evidence directed at her back towards her accusers declaring, “Facts are horrid things.” Based on Jane Austen’s novella “Lady Susan” written in 1794 but not published until 1867, the story revolves around the recently widowed socialite, Lady Susan, whose reputation as “the most accomplished flirt in England” follows her from London to the home of her in-laws at Churchill Estate.
In Austen’s day, an unmarried woman had few prospects for financial stability and Susan’s not-so-secret dalliance with the married Lord Manawaring, the owner of the Langford estate, does not work in her favor. Though we are aware of her tendency to scheme, we only get a hint of what she’s up to when her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”) arrives at Churchill after running away from school. Stillman introduces us to each character with a descriptive caption (though it is hardly possible to remember who’s who). Lord Manawaring (Lochlann O’Mearáin, “Vikings” TV series) is called “a divinely attractive man,” Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett, “Family Tree” TV series), who plays Federica’s suitor, is described as “a bit of a rattle” which in commonly understood terms means a simple-minded buffoon.
Lady Susan nonetheless intends for her daughter to marry Sir James, noting that he is “vastly rich, rather simple, ideal.” Intending to enhance her relationships with her late husband’s family, Susan charms her brother-in-law, the young bachelor Reginald Decourcy (Xavier Samuel, “Fury”) who takes the bait, much to the chagrin of his sister (Emma Greenwell, “Shameless” TV series). Susan has an ally, however, in her American friend Alicia Johnson (Chloë Sevigny, “Zodiac”), her secret confidante. Married to a much older man (Stephen Fry, “The Man Who Knew Infinity”), Alicia is threatened by her husband to be sent to Connecticut if her friendship with Susan continues (which sounds good to me). “Let Mr. Johnson’s next gouty attack end more favorably,” Lady Susan says to her friend. On another occasion, she laments that Mr. Johnson is “too old to be governable, too young to die.”
Kate Beckinsale’s performance as the cunning Lady Susan can only be described as delightful. She is thoroughly believable as the powerless woman who gains strength through her ability to bend others to her will, though her accent and rapid delivery can render some of the best lines unintelligible. Another vibrant performance is that of Bennett who has great comic timing as the inane Sir James who discovers that there are only Ten Commandments, not twelve, and that those little round green things on his plate are called peas. As the plot thickens, Love & Friendship turns up its snarky wit and the time whisks by in a flurry of exuberance that lends a Shakespearean quality to the unpredictable ending.