Love and Friendship is the perfect, unlikely, sublime artistic collaboration between the director of The Last Days of Disco, and the author of Pride and Prejudice. It’s a hoot. It’s a laugh-out-loud comedy, sharply satirical, as trenchant a commentary on the patriarchy as I can remember. It is, I finally decided, after much soul-searching and trepidation, a feminist film. Bear with me.
Love and Friendship is based on Lady Susan, a Jane Austen novella, written when Austen was a teenager. You know how Jane Austen novels include some pretty incisive social commentary, but structurally are also romances? We ultimately do want Elizabeth to marry Darcy, and would find Pride and Prejudice unbearable if that didn’t happen in the end, right? Well, Love and Friendship is Jane Austen without the romance. That’s not to say that courtship isn’t a major plot point. It’s courtship entirely without romance, without love or affection or even genuine friendship. It’s a movie about courtship seen entirely as an economic necessity. Marriage, bluntly and unapologetically, as prostitution.
Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) is a recent widow, and she’s dead broke. She is, in fact, homeless. She has a teenaged daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark) she needs to get married off, and she’s aware that she needs to marry too. But she has no home base–she, of necessity, spends her time on visits to the homes of people, friends and family who will put her up for a few weeks. She also has to find various homes in which to park Frederica; perhaps a school, if she can persuade it to waive tuition fees by the simple expedient of not paying them.
She has a wardrobe, and she’s beautiful. Those are her assets. But, above all that is one huge advantage; she’s clever. She’s immensely, terrifically smart, especially about men. She’s also completely unburdened by anything like a conscience or a sense of morality. She’s perfectly willing to manipulate anyone, male or female, to get what she wants. And if she destroys their marriages or family relations, well, what’s the adage about eggs and omelettes?
And we root for her. One of the rules of drama is that we will always root for the protagonist, even if she’s awful, even if her objectives are bad. We will still, always, root for the protagonist of any story to succeed. And it helps that Lady Susan is charming, and clever. She’s fun to root for, as she sorts out which wealthy male acquaintances she’ll cull from the herd, one for her and one for Frederica–though it takes her some time to decide who will get who.
One possibility is Reginald DeCoursey (Xavier Samuel), who is decent, honorable, but perhaps a trifle too trusting for his own good. One difficulty there is his parents, who utterly abhor Lady Susan, who they suspect of having had an affair with a married friend, Lord Manwaring (Lochlann O’Mearain). Which she did, but which, of course, she also denies.
Another possibility, though, is Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), a very wealthy member of Lady Susan’s social circle. Sir James is amiable, kind-hearted, utterly without guile, a sweet and gentle soul, who, sadly, is also the most astonishing idiot. I don’t know Tom Bennett, though his name is wonderfully Austenian, but I take my hat off to this fine actor; Sir James is a remarkable comic creation. I rejoiced every time he appeared on screen, and laughed out loud at every one of his scenes. His delight at finding peas on his dinner plate is a triumph; he nearly walks off with the movie.
But his character is also central to the film’s social commentary. At first, Lady Susan seems to intend Sir James for Frederica, her daughter. But Frederica finds the idea appalling. She grants that Sir James has many good qualities, that he is a kind man, and a gentleman beyond reproach. But, she wails, he’s such an appalling blockhead. And we can see it. Marriage to Sir James would surely have its advantages; comfort, even luxury. But with whom would you converse? Frederica would rather teach school, she courageously declares.
But that’s not possible. It just isn’t; for a woman of Frederica’s class and upbringing, there simply is not a profession open to her. Her mother is right. In that particular iteration of the patriarchal society, women have exactly one career possibility–that of a wife, and presumably, a mother. Those are the facts; make the best of them.
And that’s why I consider this a feminist movie. It’s not that Lady Susan is a feminist heroine; frankly, she’s a bit of a monster. But if she’s a gold-digger, what else could she be? She’s the ultimate pragmatist, and if her actions hurt other women–which they unquestionably do, including the perpetually sobbing Lady Manwaring (Jenn Murray)–what of it? The point is to survive.
The movie reflects Austen’s novella, as a remarkably clear-eyed dissection of patriarchy, and the harm it does to women. Is Lady Susan wicked? Her society has made her so. And above all else, she will survive. At the end of the movie, when we see her ingenious solution to all her family problems, it’s quite deliciously appalling. And that’s where the film emerges as a strongly proto-feminist text. Susan’s a horror show. But she does win. And we put up with it, because the protagonist is so clever, and the film itself so hilarious.
Couple of final notes; Kate Beckinsale dominates the film, and she’s amazing. I don’t know when I’ve ever seen a performance that has caused me to reevaluate an actor more than this performance did for her. Do you think of her as ‘hot chick in action movies?’ No longer. To think that an actress with her comic timing and wit has had so few opportunities to shine the way she shines her–well, blame sexism. And Whit Stillman’s directing of this film is quite brilliant. Lady Susan is an epistolary novella–a story told through letters–and Stillman captures that, with constant shots of various butlers and footman passing on sealed missives, the contents of which are then shared with us through titles. It gave the film a bit of the meta-cinematic vibe of the BBC TV series Sherlock; a contemporary feel for a period story. Anyway, the result is a marvelous film, not the least bit staid or formal, a brilliant satire of manners, and an incomparably funny picture. See this movie.