Austen drips from this adaptation like sarcasm drips from Austen – and for the same reasons. Director Whit Stillman’s adaptation of Lady Susan (confusingly named Love and Friendship, despite being unrelated to Austen’s Love and Friendship) is bitingly witty, brutally cynical and crisply structured. Everything Austen is, but also everything the adaptations of the last few decades are not. Stillman’s loathing of Austen adaptations is palpable – probably why he chose to adapt
Lady Susan, perhaps the iciest of Austen’s works. Some critics have doubted whether the presentation is accurate, and I confess to have considered it a caricature on first watch. But a quick read of the book shocks and appals just as much as Stillman’s cinematic adaptation. Lady Susan (Beckinsale) is a “diabolical genius” that whisks her way through 18th century life in a destructive manner. She exposes and exploits the awful sensibilities of aristocratic life, manipulating the clueless men around her. The film is anything but subtle, and Susan is probably far more pointed than anything Austen ever intended, but the caricature works.
Stillman never strays from the essence of the novel. The stilted, superfluous and artificial way in which people interact is always under scrutiny. The exploited must take visible care over their words, hinting at the chasm that separates what people say and what they desire to say.
Many of the performances tear at the seams between word and thought. They make it tragically obvious how convention-induced insincerity is the source of so much woe. Bennet’s Sir James Martin is hilarious, but begs for genuine sympathy. His failure to understand the game of conversation, contrasted in a somewhat unsubtle way with Susan’s triumph, is so unjustly punished that one can’t help but cry as well as laugh. Stillman laments insincerity, a serious message he manages to bleed through the comedy.
Van Oosterhout’s cinematography deserves mention. The period drama trap of unexciting, long and laboured shots is ditched for something Wes Anderson-esque. Particular attention is paid to the snappy back and forth of conversational gaming – the audience is encouraged to see the characters’ scheming as farcical and ridiculous.
The film opens with a portrait introduction of each character, accompanied with a tagline, an admission that the cast are basically just sitcom material. Such use of on screen text is continued, but sparse enough to stay interesting.
Stillman’s adaptation is certainly worth a watch. Both modernised and faithful, hilarious and serious, it captures the full breadth of Austen’s power in a way we see all too rarely.