Ascerbic comedy Jane Austin in Love & Friendship

A Period comedy
Written by Whit Stillman, based on Jane Austen’s novella, Lady Susan

Directed by Whit Stillman

Pretty much everything is played for laughs in this adaptation of one of Jane Austen’s least known works. Nowhere near as romantic as most Austen adaptations, it centers on a manipulative horror of a human being–truly a woman you love to hate. Not that the movie is misanthropic; most of the characters are likeable. But Lady Susan Vernon (a wonderful Kate Beckinsale) is evil, scheming, and thoroughly horrendous. And from the audience’s point of view, tremendously entertaining.

At first glance, Lady Susan is a worldly, virtuous, proper and loving widow. But anyone not blinded by her charms can figure out in two minutes that she’s a sociopath. She’s the sort of person who travels with a lower-class “friend” whom she treats as a servant. By using the word friend, she can argue that paying her traveling companion would be just rude.

The film is set in the late 18th century, soon after the American Revolution. The main characters are all aristocrats, although some of them have more money than others. Lady Susan doesn’t have a lot, and hopes that either she or her teenage daughter can marry someone wealthy.

As one is to expect from a Jane Austen story, the family relationships get complicated. Without going into detail, Lady Susan digs her claws into the handsome young brother of her sister-in-law, while trying to arrange for her daughter to marry a rich idiot that the daughter (a remarkably decent person considering her mother) despises.

That rich idiot, Sir Charles, can’t enter the screen without the audience breaking into laughter. Completely oblivious to everything, he speaks with an unintentional surrealism that leaves everyone baffled. When he discusses the twelve commandments, and is told that there are only ten, he seems quite relieved, wondering which two he can stop following. Tom Bennett’s performance in this role is one of the great comic idiots. I’d love to see a whole movie built around this upper-class twit.

But Love & Friendship is funny even without Sir Charles, and displays a fine sense of absurdity throughout. Characters are all introduced with onscreen text giving us their names, their relationship to other characters, and occasionally comments on their looks or personality. When a character reads a letter out loud, the words appear on the screen, often one word at a time. Somehow, this enhances the comic timing.

Love & Friendship gives you a great villainess, a fun story, and a lot of laughs. It’s the sort of film that would’ve make a big commercial hit before superheroes took over Hollywood.