The works of Jane Austen have created about 60 screen adaptations from just six novels. That doesn’t include her first short work of fiction, written in the epistolary form around 1794 when she was 18. It was never published in her lifetime and Austen’s reputation rests on the novels, the first of which, Sense and Sensibility, was also originally written in the letter format when she was in her 20s.
That novel was eventually published in 1811 in conventional prose, but the novella did not appear until 1871 under the title, Lady Susan.
American writer-director Whit Stillman’s version comes after only four films, all of which are conversationally based and heavily influenced, if not inspired, by Austen’s work.
Indeed, he has rewritten his film, which has the Austenian title of Love & Friendship (Hopscotch), into a novel of the same name.
Stillman’s films inhabit an artificial world in which the characters speak in rapid literary aphorisms.
Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale) is perfect for this form of communication as the most duplicitous and manipulative of all Austen’s characters.
The letters between Lady Susan and her equally scheming American confidante (Chloe Sevigny) are turned into surreptitious tete-a-tetes to move the plot along between the set pieces.
Both appeared in an earlier Stillman film, The Last Days of Disco (1998), the final in a trilogy with Metropolitan (1989) and Barcelona (1994). His most recent was the little-seen American campus comedy Damsels in Distress (2011).
Lady Susan opens as the recent widow and her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) are forced out of a country manor, where she dallied with the married lord, and move to her brother-in-law’s household, where she is immediately attracted to his brother-in-law, Reginald Decourcy (Xavier Samuel).
Thus begins a round of relationships in which Lady Susan pursues her twin objectives of a regular home and income through marriages for her and Frederica.
This takes a lot of manoeuvring, but it’s easy to keep up as each character gets a brief profile when introduced.
Any doubts that she is a merely a gold-digger are swept aside when she responds to Decourcy’s putdowns with withering wit. She then leads him a merry chase, demonstrating her beauty is just skin deep.
Meanwhile, Lady Susan has to defuse her daughter’s rejection of a rich but stupid man.
Stillman truncates many of the scenes, leaving the audience dangling until Lady Susan bring us and her confidante up to date with her cunning plans. It is not until the end, when all the threads come together, that the enormity of her plotting is fully explained.
Here, Whitman bends Austen’s hubristic ending. By this time, the audience is fully engaged with Lady Susan’s unbending self-belief, obsessive narcissism and menace to anyone who crosses her. All the while, Beckinsale retains her straight-faced composure.
It’s a bravura performance that is complemented by a scene-stealing Tom Bennett as an idiotic but wealthy suitor and Stephen Fry in a cameo as the husband of Lady’s Susan’s confidante.
Rating: General audiences; 93 minutes.