Whit Stillman’s movie based on Jane Austen’s novella Lady Susan came to town on Friday, May 27th. Austen is believed to have written the novella in the early 1790s, when she was 15 to 20 years old. I have not read either of Austen’s novellas — Love and Friendship (dated 1790) and Lady Susan (so confusing that the movie is based on Lady Susan but given the name of Love and Friendship!)— and was very interested in seeing Stillman’s adaptation. A friend and I attended its Knoxville premiere. How would I rate it? Hmm. There were things I liked about it and things I didn’t particularly like. Here’s the rundown:

Things I Liked

  1. First off, I think Kate Beckinsale is the bee’s knees, whether she’s performing as Emma in the TV movie based on Austen’s book or striding through the Underworld as a vampire in a form-fitting black bodysuit. In Love and Friendship she plays the bewitching and conniving widow, Lady Susan Vernon. The entire movie revolved around her character, and Beckinsale was up to scratch the whole time: elegantly coiffed, beautifully dressed, so very British in speech, and thoroughly entertaining, especially when she was tossing the odd barb among the pigeons, giving her true opinion or dissembling. (Oh, especially when she was dissembling.)
  2. The cast was a good mix of actors. Several I recognized from Austen-based films and popular movies: Stephen Fry (who’s been in just about everything: Tristram Shandy, The Hobbit, Twelfth Night and V for Vendetta), Emma Greenwell (who played Caroline Bingley in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), Jemma Redgrave (who played Lady Bertram in the TV movie Mansfield Park), and James Fleet (who played John Dashwood in Ang Lee’s production of Sense and Sensibility). The movie character Lady Lucy Manwaring could not please — too insecure, suspicious and hysterical (But who can blame her? If her husband divorced her, she stood to lose everything) — but the actor Jenn Murray was perfect in the role. Tom Bennett was a complete hoot as Sir James Martin.
  3. The clothing was a feast for the eyes — all tucked silks and billowy muslins and tight breeches. The ladies’ intricate hairstyles were magnificent. The drawing rooms were elegantly furnished with plush sofas and girandoles and writing tables; the bewigged servants, appropriately haughty. At all times I felt immersed in the Regency era: sealed letters were written and received, introductions were made, behavior was praised and lamented. All good.
  4. This sounds silly, but I was struck by the role of horses in everyday life. Of course, of course, the main form of transportation then was a horse, and nearly every Regency period film has a horse or two in it. For example, the beginning of the BBC’s 3-part mini-series of Pride and Prejudice (P&P) shows Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley racing their horses across an open field. Later, poor Jane Bennet’s horse plods along toward Netherfield Park in the rain, getting himself and his rider drenched on the way. Then, too, carriage scenes are common in Austen film adaptations. Think of the scene in P&P where Elizabeth Bennet first spies Miss Anne de Bourgh through the parsonage window.

Even though I recognized the essential role of horses on some cerebral level, this was the first movie where it smacked me like a wet towel: here were young men riding up to the mansion door and springing down off their horses in one smooth, flying leap, like gymnasts. One of the horses looked to be about 17 or 18 hands tall. What a dismount! The actors made it look easy, as though they executed this maneuver every day. “Well,” I thought, “of course, that’s the way they did it.”

MY RATING for costumes and cast and the settings: 4.5 stars

The Things I Didn’t Like

  1. The sound quality was a bit off by today’s movie standard, which I found distracting. There were times when footsteps on a hardwood floor were overly loud, as though no carpets had been laid, while conversations sometimes had a sort of echo to them, as though the room lacked furniture. Perhaps this fault lies with the theatre’s audio system and not with the filmmaker. All I can say is that I was aware of sounds I can’t recall hearing in other Austen-based films. I’ll have to re-watch P&P, Emma, Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion, Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park (my favorite novel) just to make sure. (What a hardship! I’m not sure I can bear it.)
  2. The action was a little too fast-paced, leaving me feeling that I didn’t get to know the characters very well. I had hints and suppositions and occasional true insights, but I longed for more detail. (Why can’t every Austen adaptation be a 3-part, 6-hour movie?) It can’t be easy to collapse a novel into a 90-minute movie, but the pace of the story in, say, the Keira Knightley 2005 version of P&P did not seem so fast paced as this version of Love and Friendship. The fact that I knew all of the characters in the P&P story, however, might account for the difference.

MY RATING for the dislikes: 3.2 stars

Additional Ratings

Vanity Fair’s review back in January called it a “cream puff of a movie” and atypical of most British period movies. My friend gave it four stars; she liked the irreverent comments and most of the casting, but she felt distressed by Lady Susan’s unscrupulous ways. A fellow Janeite and member of the local chapter of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA), who also attended the local premier, said he was hoping for more than he got and would probably give it less than 3.8 stars.


TOTAL RATING: 3.6 stars

In short, I enjoyed Austen’s charming story where everything ends just as it should (i.e., for better or for worse). Like Elizabeth Bennet’s first impression of Mr. Darcy, I think my opinion of Stillman’s adaptation may improve after I become more acquainted with it. The remarkable thing about Austen’s novellas (Love and Friendship and Lady Susan) is this: they were written when Jane Austen was a teenager. What writer doesn’t wish to be as precocious as she was at that age … or, indeed, at any age?