Inside Story

The book of the film of the book

Brian McFarlane reviews Whit Stillman’s Love and Friendship

Brian McFarlane 3 August 2016 2354 words

Dazzling: Kate Beckinsale as Lady Susan.

Love and Friendship
Directed by Whit Stillman | On general release

Love and Friendship
By Whit Stillman | Hodder & Stoughton | $29.99

As a long-time admirer of film-maker Whit Stillman and a much-longer-time admirer of Jane Austen, I’d been looking forward to Love and Friendship and it’s good to be able to report that expectations haven’t been disappointed.

It was Austen’s Pride and Prejudice that introduced me to the idea of realism in fiction (and left me largely indifferent to fantasy) at a quite early age. Reading the novel as a youngish teenager, having been led to it by a benevolent teacher, I was struck by how, though nothing much seemed to happen, I kept turning the pages of the shabby red Everyman copy, and by how real it all seemed. If it wasn’t exactly like my own home life, it seemed real enough to be someone else’s.

On the whole, film has treated Austen pretty well, having worked its way, on screens large and small, through all six of the major novels. But until now no one has got round to filming any of the minor works. One of these is called Love and Freindship (the title was misspelt in the original) but it’s another minor work, the novella Lady Susan (written when Austen was eighteen), that provides the basis for Stillman’s film.

I hadn’t actually read Lady Susan till about a month ago, and it made me glad that, as she entered maturity, Austen would abandon the epistolary mode of storytelling, which was the established practice of the preceding century. As it traces the machinations of its eponymous heroine, Lady Susan offers some very sharp perceptions, but it is a long way behind the six masterworks.

My enjoyment of Stillman’s films goes back not quite so far, to Metropolitan (1990), a supremely witty, insightful, affectionate and wry satire of Manhattan yuppies being very serious about life, or at least about the very select bits of it that swim by them. I still remember lines from it, such as “Playing strip poker with an exhibitionist somehow takes the challenge out of it,” or how the leader of the pack, Nick, has been banished upstate to “a stepmother of untrammelled malevolence.”

Metropolitan was followed by such other sophisticated pleasures as The Last Days of Disco(1998), which returned Stillman to the wonderfully knowing, stylistically cool and verbally acute exploration of the lives of young people of the early 1980s taking themselves and the disco phenomenon very seriously. Barcelona and Damsels in Distress were only slightly less beguiling, creating their ambiences with evocative precision as well as focusing sharply on individual lives. These lives are mostly young, but the films are made with adults in mind: it’s the film-maker’s perception that matters.

As in all these films, so in Love and Friendship – again, Stillman has written the screenplay, and if the term “auteur” still means anything in film critical circles, he is undoubtedly one of them.

The film of the book

It is possible while reading Lady Susan to lose a grip on the dozen or so main characters as they execute the steps of the dance of relationships that make up the novella’s plot. This may partly reflect the epistolary format, which doesn’t do much to situate them in physically recognisable settings. Stillman’s adaptation seems to be aware of this problem, and from the outset – that is, in the credits – we are introduced to each of the characters, their function in the plot, and the actor who is playing each of them.

Even so, the viewer unfamiliar with Austen’s tale may feel challenged. Not to worry, though: the action will sort them out as and when necessary, and when the scene moves between London and various provincial mansions, a title will be provided for each residence. The most important of these is Churchill, which will be Lady Susan’s chief base for directing operations.

The plot, like those of many of Austen’s novels, is basically concerned with the idea of marriage, with the pursuit of likely contenders, and with consideration of the vital qualifications of a suitable partner. Love and friendship are all very well in their way, but there are more crucial matters, such as class position and a substantial income, that need to be given priority – or certainly as its protagonist sees things.

Lady Susan, a widow (though her life seems scarcely clouded by grief), is after two marriage partners: one for herself and one for her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark). Frederica has proved a bit of a handful at the school to which her mother has consigned her while she, Susan, goes off to stay with her late husband’s brother and sister-in-law, Charles and Catherine Vernon, at their stately home, Churchill. Once there, her manoeuvrings set the rest of the film moving. Susan, described as a “diabolical genius,” takes a fancy to her sister-in-law’s younger brother, Reginald DeCourcy (Australian actor Xavier Samuel), and this is a cause of concern to his sister and his father (James Fleet), who tries to warn his son against this notorious woman. More complications ensue when, to the dismay of Catherine, Charles brings Frederica to Churchill and Susan does her best to arrange for her daughter to marry the foolish Sir James Martin. And so on.

If all this sounds a bit complicated – and there’s a good deal more, involving the hysterical wife of a man Susan has been flirting with, the Johnson household (he’s played by Stephen Fry and his American wife by Chloё Sevigny) and the DeCourcy parents – don’t let that worry you. The pleasure of the film is in the effortlessly elegant way Stillman goes about rendering all the plots and ploys, especially Susan’s devious attempts to ensure everything goes entirely her way, without, curiously, alienating us from any of the characters – even the moronic Sir James (in a very funny study of crass stupidity from Tom Bennett) and especially not the manipulative Susan. The film plays like a complicated period dance to which only she really knows the steps, and Kate Beckinsale’s dazzling incarnation of the role keeps our attention fixed on her and the often doomed efforts of the other dancers to keep up with her.

Remember, too, that Beckinsale once played another Austen-based manipulator, the title role in the 1996 version of Emma.She is wholly convincing in devising and carrying out Susan’s schemes – and in suggesting a not easily slaked lust. She wears her flamboyant period garments as to the manor/manner born and comports herself with a regality of bearing that does full justice to them.

As her occasional confidante, Chloë Sevigny provides a nicely muted contrast. Watching these two together again, nearly twenty years later and each with an imposing string of credits behind her, one recalls how well they complemented each other in The Last Days of Disco, in which Beckinsale’s character memorably told Sevigny’s: “You’re a good conversationalist, but there’s something of the kindergarten teacher about you.”

Beckinsale and Sevigny have both weathered the intervening years with brilliant composure – a composure that is here revealed as utterly appropriate to the roles of Lady Susan and her American friend Mrs Alicia Johnson, who exhibits her own share of devious behaviour. In fact, it’s a pity Sevigny wasn’t given more to do: as it is, she serves mainly as the recipient of Susan’s confidences about how her plans are proceeding – and of Susan’s brilliantly dismissive remark about Alicia’s middle-aged husband (Fry): “He’s too old to be governable and too young to die.” The film is replete with this kind of verbal stoushing, of course, and one of Stillman’s skills is his capacity to accommodate the idiom of the film’s era with the cadences of today without a failure of authenticity or tonal coherence.

Stillman’s perception of these convoluted lives allows him to discriminate without any loss of urbane good humour. But, however conniving and self-absorbed Susan may be – and her carefully calculated charm of manner doesn’t fool us as it does some of the other characters – Beckinsale contrives to make her the object not only of our most intense interest, but also of something almost like sympathy. In the world she moves in, she alone is the one who has her wits about her, self-knowingly playing the social games that constitute this milieu and determined not to let its tiresomely restrictive rules dominate her life.

The side plots in which she, of course, has a finger – or, rather, a hand – include Frederica’s falling for Catherine’s brother Reginald rather than the idiotic Sir James, and the distraught wife of her own (possibly) former lover, Lord Manwaring, becoming aware of her husband’s infidelity and raging on to the scene.

This is all part of the ambience of tangled relations in which Stillman is such a skilled practitioner, but it’s mildly surprising to see how firmly based in Austen’s novella are the sexual hijinks attributed to Lady Susan. She’s had a fling with Lord Manwaring (was this before or after her entry to stylish widowhood?) and makes an unmistakable play for young DeCourcy: Stillman of course takes these on board, but they were there to be so taken.

The current cinema needs Stillman as an antidote to all those franchises with a colon in their titles, and I hope he won’t wait another five years for his next film. The fact that this latest is an Irish/Dutch/French/British/US co-production perhaps suggests it wasn’t an easy project to get off the ground. We should be grateful that he managed it.

The book of the film of the book

Cinema has been voracious in its adaptation of literary works, especially novels, into films, as some of the best and most famous movies testify. The opposite process has a much shorter and not very distinguished history. Now, since filming Love and Friendship,Stillman has written a book of the same name, which is really the book of the film of the book. Offhand, I can’t recall any other film-maker who has ventured into this territory of double-barrelled adaptation. And not many film-makers would dare to take on Jane Austen, let alone have the capacity in some ways to improve on her.

I’m aware that this remark will have all those Janeites baying for my blood, but let me explain. Stillman’s book version of his film version of Austen’s Lady Susan releases her novella from the wearying constraints of the epistolary mode. Instead of leaving us to plough through over a hundred pages of (forty-one) letters, trying to keep track of who was writing to whom and about whom, Stillman has adapted his film into a series of meetings and conversations in which the people involved take on an immediacy not often the case in the novella. Arguably, one of Austen’s great achievements was to release the English novel from this highly artificial mode of storytelling – and I write as an ardent fan of the woman who set the novel on its wonderful career in the nineteenth century.

The other distinctive aspect of Stillman’s novel, and one that renders it almost an adaptation of his film, is anticipated in his subtitle: “In Which Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Verdon Is Entirely Vindicated.” This “vindication” is effected by Stillman’s giving the authorial voice to one R. Martin-Colonna de Cesari-Rocca, who, on the opening page, solicits the attention of the Prince of Wales on the matter of his “late loyal subjects libeled [sic] and defamed by the same Spinster Authoress,” the term he uses throughout to refer to Austen.

Stillman’s controlling wit ensures that we never really confuse this “voice” with his own sentiments about Austen, and it is almost clumsy of me to say this, but it does also lead us to consider how Stillman really did view his “diabolical” protagonist. Perhaps he actually values the creative energy she expends on ordering circumstances and events to her own ends and satisfaction. Does anyone else in Austen, or in Whitman’s film or book, approach Susan for perception and determination? No.

It’s the pseudo-authorial voice that accounts for a lot of the pleasure of Stillman’s novel. Martin-Colonna is the nephew of the “rattle” Sir James Martin, whom Susan, rather than see him and his fortune go to waste, has married when Frederica turns him down because she thinks he’s “silly.” Martin-Colonna describes James as “my mother’s beloved elder brother… a man who… brought only joy and good feeling into the world” and condemns “the negative, nasty pleasure others found in mocking and ridiculing a man who would not conform to their icy mores.” And because Lady Susan is now his wife, she is given a good bill of moral health, unlike all those captious critics who’ve been set up by the “spinster authoress” to assume always the moral high ground. In doing so, Martin-Colonna shows himself a true heir to his uncle’s good nature – and his idiocy.

An authorship comprising Jane Austen, Whit Stillman and Sir James’s nephew could hardly fail – and it doesn’t. It’s a good idea to take them in that order, then possibly go back for another look at the film. •