Jane Austen, who used dialogue as a veil that reveals and conceals, and writer-director Whit Stillman (Metropolitan), with his love for the elegant pensée, are such an obvious match that you wonder why it took them this long to get together. Love & Friendship, Stillman’s acerbic adaptation of the Austen novella Lady Susan, gets closer to the author’s snap and spirit than most of her film adaptations of recent decades. The film is stately, but not in that luxe cream-coloured showroom way; the rooms are dark-toned, bathed in shadow. And the people who move in and out of them proclaim their agendas with a brittle deviousness that’s more Dangerous Liaisons than Emma. That’s the film’s appeal, but also its challenge: Love & Friendship is not a romantic comedy dressed in breeches and ruffles. It could just as well have been called Money & Coercion. It taps into the side of Austen that saw love as something that many – if not most – women simply couldn’t afford.
To put it in vulgar movie terms: Xavier Samuel is the closest thing here to a ‘Hugh Grant character’
The central character is Lady Susan Vernon Martin, a widow of diminishing means played with high duplicitous verve by Kate Beckinsale. Lady Susan is a manipulator of such tart-tongued intricacy that when she’s on screen, you spend half the time enjoying her amoral flippancy and the other half trying to figure out what exactly it is she’s after. Lady Susan arrives at Churchill, the country mansion of her in-laws, where her first task is to deceptively, flirtatiously dispel any notion that she is a deceptive flirt. She cultivates an alliance with Reginald DeCourcy, who at first seems a natural match for her. To put it in vulgar movie terms: he’s the closest thing here to a ‘Hugh Grant character’, and Xavier Samuel plays him as softly cutting in a debonair way.
Pride and prevarications
But Lady Susan, while she declares affection for Reginald, is really just using him, the same way she uses everyone. When her daughter, the radiant Frederica (Morfydd Clark) shows up from school, Lady Susan has a ghastly match in store for her: Sir James, who is wealthy, kind, and the sort of jaw-dropping buffoon who could only be produced by generations of moneyed indolence. He’s played by Tom Bennett in a performance that provokes some chuckles (especially when Sir James discusses “the Twelve Commandments”) but that I wish gave the character another layer or two. Bennett flashes his teeth like Michael Palin in an old Monty Python sketch. He’s funny, but in the end there’s nothing to him.
Stillman has taken his liberties with Austen’s story
The luscious amusement of Beckinsale’s performance is that Lady Susan lies as casually as she breathes (“Facts are horrid things!” she proclaims), but the way she lies is to spin out such an eloquent smokescreen of curlicued literacy that no one following her to the end of her sentences could possibly think they’re misrepresenting reality. Even the audience gets fooled.
Stillman, who famously referenced Jane Austen in Metropolitan, knows this world of comfort and the boredom, in which manners can mask the shabbiest behaviour. But in Love & Friendship, he also packs a few too many complications into 90 minutes. Lady Susan, an early Austen work published after her death, is far from a seamless manuscript, and Stillman has taken his liberties with it, leaving crucial encounters in the background and tweaking the ending into something so playful and modern that the audience does a double-take as the end credits are rolling. He has every right to play with the material in this way; it’s not as if the warm-and-fuzzy Austen adaptations of the ‘90s were always so authentic. But those movies had a way of letting viewers wish that they could live in that time. Love & Friendship musters some of that period delight but spikes it with a cynical flair that puts any hint of wide-eyed idealism in its place.
If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.