(PG) Directed by Whit Stillman
Starring Kate Beckinsale, Xavier Samuel, Chloe Sevigny

by Mark Hadley

Jane Austen fans are unlikely to be throwing their bonnets at the screen when Love And Friendship opens at their local cinema. The production not only showcases the author’s considerable wit, but reveals a welcome contrast between the worldly woman and the Bible’s idea of beauty.

Love And Friendship is an adaptation of an early novella by Austen that was published after her death as Lady Susan. The author used a collection of letters to tell the fictional story of an unscrupulous widow who goes husband-hunting amongst the married and single men of her day. Writer / director White Stillman has used those letters and the talents of Kate Beckinsale to create a comic tale that introduces the world to the outrages of Lady Susan Vernon.

Beckinsale is both beautiful and terrible as a woman completely unencumbered by morality. Lady Susan enters the story as a widow, apparently dependent on family and friends for support with the passing of her dear husband. However, as this comedy of manners unfolds, it becomes clear they are the ones who are at her mercy. Lady Susan never seems to be at a loss for a way to profit from a situation, and when called on to explain her sister-in-law’s cool attitude towards her, she replies:

“It’s that I opposed her marriage to Frederick – but it is decidedly illiberal [of her] to resent a plan that did not succeed!”

However high she rises, though, viewers of Love And Friendship will soon become aware that Lady Susan is being measured against another, silent standard. Austen chose her protagonist’s name to parallel the apocryphal Bible story of Susannah, a determinedly chaste woman who is unfairly accused of infidelity but finally vindicated. Lady Susan, by contrast, is a notorious seductress who twists the Bible to justify her every scheme. Even when confronted by glaring proof of her lack of principles, she always manages to rearrange perspectives to put herself in the right. Describing the outraged wife of one of her lovers, she says, “If she was going to be jealous she should not have married such an attractive man.”

Yet though Lady Susan is a strangely attractive character, Stillman’s production ends with her triumphs eclipsed by her daughter Frederica’s integrity:

“Yet still an higher beauty is her care, 
Virtue, the charm that most adorns the fair.” 

The poem, put into the mouth of Frederica’s husband, underlines Austen’s intent and the Bible’s way of judging loveliness. Virtue is far more attractive than appearance, acclaim or success. When the apostle Peter describes true beauty, he might well have been warning his readers about the likes of Lady Susan:

“Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. 4 Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.”[1]

Love and Friendship is a ludicrous comedy that certainly finishes with Lady Susan on top, but I feel certain most viewers will read the deeper message. Attractiveness radiates from the heart out. The testimony of our character will not only outlast our looks, but outshine them as well.

 

[1] 1 Peter 3:3-4, NIV, https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Peter+3%3A3-4&version=NIV

 

This review was first published by Pipeline. Click here to check it out.

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