Jane Austen published only published four full length novels during her lifetime: Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Emma. Two more, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, were published a year after her death at the age of 41.
I’ve read all of them at least once, and seen multiple film and television adaptations of every one. So you can imagine my excitement when I heard about the release of a new Jane Austen movie, based not on any of the six novels, but on an entirely new-to-me story!
Lady Susan is a short epistolary novel, sometimes even called a novella or novelette, written in Austen’s youth and published after her death. The epistolary format, popular at the time, means that the entire story consists of letters written between the characters. (Sense and Sensibility was originally drafted in this format as well.) It’s not necessarily a style that lends itself well to adaptation into screenplay, as it generally lacks dialogue.
But director Whit Stillman (Metropolitan, The Last Days of Disco) was up to the challenge. His movie adaptation Love and Friendship, which borrows the name of another piece of Austen juvenilia, is pure Austen and pure entertainment.
Recently widowed, Lady Susan arrives, unannounced, at her brother-in-law’s estate to wait out colorful rumors about her dalliances circulating through polite society. While there, she becomes determined to secure a new husband for herself, and one for her reluctant debutante daughter, Frederica, too. As Lady Susan embarks on a controversial relationship with a married man, seduction, deception, broken hearts, and gossip all ensue.
Now, a word of caution: if your experience with Austen involves only things like Colin Firth jumping in a lake, you may find yourself a bit lost with this one. Our main character, Lady Susan, cannot properly be called a heroine at all. She is smart, scheming, and manipulative; recently widowed, she is young young to still be beautiful and charming, but old enough to have a sixteen-year-old daughter (whom she only views in terms of benefits to herself–in fact, that is her attitude towards people in general).
She is the center around which all the characters orbit, willingly or not. Kate Beckinsale is absolutely wonderful in the role; in fact I really preferred this to her turn as the titular character in Emma twenty years ago. Lady Susan is a bit like Emma, except that she ends without redeeming herself at all (despite what the credits say).
The rest of the cast and characters were also enjoyable, and they nearly all get some funny lines and scenes (several taken directly from the source material). There are a few characters added, enhanced, or slightly altered compared to the novella, and I found them to be positive changes.
The film is only about an hour and a half long, and the pacing is very quick, with a lot of action happening off-screen. In this way, I think it stays true to the novella, but you do have to work to keep up. The beginning in particular is confusing, as we are introduced to a great number of characters in a short amount of time, and all the relationships between them are very important to setting the stage for the rest of the movie.
L&F also has a different feel from the polished BBC and movie adaptations of Austen’s other works. The soundtrack is lovely, as is the scenery (it was shot in Ireland), but the cinematography and editing give it the feel of an “indie” movie. It was clever at times, but a bit disconcerting at others.
I’m not sure why they felt the need to change the title, as it doesn’t really relate to the story and is confusing for Austen fans who may have read the actual Love and Freindship [sic], which is also epistolary. Perhaps it just seems more “Austen” to those used to S&S and P&P.
In short, if you like Austen for the romance, you’ll probably be disappointed. If you like Austen for the sharp wit and satire, you’ll be in heaven. While Lady Susan is not Austen’s most satisfying work, I think Austen fans will generally find the film (and the novella on which it’s based) worthy of their time.