Wednesday, 20 July 2016


Transmission Films

Sassy and saucy, we've not seen a Jane Austen heroine quite like Lady Susan Vernon. Not that Austen's oeuvre has been without its share of beeyatches, but they're usually an impediment or rival to the heroine achieving her goal of happy matrimony. They're never the protagonist. And they've never been played on the screen quite as deliciously as Kate Beckinsale.

Adapted by writer-director Whit Stillman, from an unfinished Austen novella titled Lady Susan, Love & Friendship could just as easily have been titled All Is Fair In, for Beckinsale's Lady Susan Vernon is not above doing all that it takes to achieve her aims; that is, financial security for herself, and her daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark), via advantageous marriage. What's love got to do with it?

Duplicitous, adulterous, scheming and conniving, Lady Susan is the antithesis of Elizabeth Bennett, and those who've only ever enjoyed Austen as a witty forebear to the modern rom-com will be a little perplexed to find the villain driving the narrative. And they will be equally as perplexed to find themselves -- against their better nature -- rooting for her.

So delightfully wicked are Lady Susan's observations, asides and put downs, and so perfect are Beckinsale's delivery of them, that you can't help but be won over. Not since My Best Friend's Wedding (1997), where Julia Roberts' famed smile turned maniacal in her attempts to upend that titular event, has the bad girl been so much fun to watch.

It's also a refreshing change to see an Austen heroine subverting both the patriarchy and the author herself. It might be a man's world but Lady Susan knows how to play the menfolk like a fiddle. The women around her know exactly what she's up to but the men, no matter their intelligence, seem oblivious to her scheming.

Well, all but Mr. Johnson (Stephen Fry). The husband to Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny), best friend and confidant to Lady Susan, has threatened his American wife with a returned exile to the new world should she continue their acquaintance. The likes of her brother-in-law, Charles Vernon (Justin Edwards), his brother-in-law, Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel, quite fetching in a Regency wardrobe), and the dim-witted but financially-endowed Sir James Martin (a scene-stealing Tom Bennett) are blindsided by Lady Susan's charm and beauty.

Beckinsale, best known for her role in the Underworld franchise and a series of other forgettable actioners, relishes the opportunity she has been gifted by Stillman (whom she worked with 18 years ago on The Last Days of Disco) and Austen, delivering a career-best performance. Trading leather catsuits for Regency costumes has worked wonders for the actress.

Fans of Beckinsale's werewolf franchise may not be so easily converted, but those who seek out Love & Friendship are in for a treat. Period.

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