We need to talk about Jane Austen. Possibly you’ve read one of her novels for homework or book club? Maybe you’ve seen one of the movies or series adaptations? Or it could be you’ve never heard of her or her stories—Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Emma, or the 2020 film version of Emma, “Emma.” with a mysterious period after it—and aren’t sure why you need to?
But no matter where you stand on the Matter of Austen, you DO need to know about Love and Friendship from 2016, filmmaker Whit Stillman’s masterpiece—and the one Austen movie that gets Austen right. And getting Austen right, it turns out, makes for the kind of pure viewing pleasure that’s in far shorter supply than the streamers would have us believe as they aim their firehose of “content” at our screens.
THE AUSTEN ENTERTAINMENT COMPLEX
ONLY SHAKESPEARE IS MORE FAMOUS THAN JANE AUSTEN AMONG WRITERS FROM ENGLAND
Let’s begin with the Austen Entertainment Complex, the industry born in the 20th century that turned Austen’s novels about the British landed gentry of the late 18th century into filmed entertainment for profit. Reasonable enough. Only Shakespeare is more famous than Jane Austen among writers from England.
Her face is even on the ten-pound British banknote, replacing Charles Darwin!
So yes, the legendary BBC TV adaptation of Pride and Prejudice from 1980 starring Colin Firth, the 2005 movie version starring Keira Knightley, the 2004 Bollywood variant starring Indian super-goddess Aishwarya Rai (called Bride and Prejudice), the zombified version from 2009 (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), even the entire Bridget Jones franchise (an updating of the Pride and Prejudice storyline)—all had solid underlying material to work with and a valid reason for being. After all, how often has Hamlet been staged, filmed, adapted, re-imagined?
And that’s just one of Austen’s six major novels. There’s no time to get into, for instance, the Oscar-winning Sense and Sensibility from 1995, director Ang Lee’s “finely observed” (as the critics like to say) re-telling of Austen’s second best-known novel, starring biggies Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, and Severus Snape.
And we won’t even mention all the movies about Jane Austen the person or about women’s book clubs in the present day whose members find inspiration in Austen’s characters or the web series based on Austen’s plotlines.
There’s just one problem with these many Austen adaptations, the talents of their filmmakers and actors notwithstanding: they’re all quite gooey. They’re (ugh) “romances.” Some are outright romantic comedies in riding habits and breeches. Even the few of them stylized to seem “edgy” (double-ugh) come with a good deal of goo.
True, Austen’s stories were proto-feminist tales of women needing to find their man (and his fortune) in a society that blocked female agency in ways public and private. And honestly, if Whit Stillman hadn’t come along, it might not have been entirely obvious that the romantic comedy-drama approach to tales from the Austensphere wasn’t the right way to go.
AUSTEN, BUT VICIOUS
WHEN IT COMES TO AUSTEN MOVIES, THIS IS A HORSE OF A DIFFERENT COLOR.
But Whit Stillman DID come along, he DID decide to make a movie called Love and Friendship based on a short epistolary novel of Austen’s that even Austen lovers had never heard of: Lady Susan (not a winning title, though better than the anemic Love and Friendship) … he DID cast in the lead role the persistently underrated Kate Beckinsale, and he DID understand that Austen wasn’t writing romance, she was writing SATIRE! Just because Saturday Night Live wasn’t on the air in 1802 to parody attitudes and events of the day doesn’t mean that sharp minds like Austen’s weren’t doing as much with the tools and through the medium available to them.
Apart from all the other aspects of his brilliant filmmaking, what Stillman achieves by design in his movie, which few seem to have attempted much less achieved before or since, is to be unsparingly faithful to both the intent and the style of the original writing (and I suspect to Austen’s actual inner voice).
Tone really IS everything in a movie, and the tone of Whitman’s movie … is vicious.
The cast are his partners in crime. They’re uniformly fantastic, and none of them is acting in a different movie than the rest, which is a feat in a piece that’s so delicately balanced. Chloë Sevigny, Tom Bennett, Stephen Fry, Xavier Samuel, Jemma Redgrave: subtle and mordacious.
And then there’s the star of the show, “Lady Susan” herself: Kate Beckinsale.
INTERLUDE: CELEBRATING KATE BECKINSALE
WHITMAN MAKES BECKINSALE LOOK TERRIFIC. BY WHICH I MEAN AS BEAUTIFUL AS SHE IS IN REAL LIFE.
Let it be stated now and forever that Kate Beckinsale is a marvel. And I sincerely doubt there will ever be a role better suited than “Lady Susan” to her spectacular intelligence, her powers of vocal control, her mastery of tonal humor, the wry magic with which she makes irony do her bidding.
Even on a modest indie budget, Whitman makes Beckinsale look terrific (by which I mean as beautiful as she is in real life) while giving her the mandate to go mean. But mean at the highest level of skillfulness. In other words: the way Jane Austen wrote it.
This is a horse of a different color from the run of sappy, schmaltzy, weak-tea Austen adaptations we’re used to, different even from the adaptations that flirt with genius in other ways than being faithful to Austen’s tone. (I’m thinking of director Joe Wright’s cinematically poetic P&P.)
LIKE SHARP & BITING? THIS IS YOUR MOVIE.
YOU CAN DO VIOLENCE WITH A TURN OF PHRASE AS WELL AS WITH A BAZOOKA.
So if you want a period piece that can slice characters into pieces with words alone, that doesn’t think a leading lady has to be likable to be a goddess or that the characters have to change or grow or learn something in the end to make their story worth telling, if you’re good with trading a lack of redeeming characteristics for wildly amusing personalities … then this is your movie. If you hate gooey, this is your movie. If you like sharp, smart, and biting, this is your movie.
You can do violence with a turn of phrase as well as with a bazooka. Austen/Whitman/Beckinsale prove the point in Love and Friendship. It’s the driest kind of comedy, which is another way of saying that it’s funny not because an ad on Hulu told you so, but because it makes your insides bubble. Go watch it.