Monday, July 11, 2016

Surprising Jane Austen

There’s not much worth seeing on the big screen this summer. Or so it would seem. Occasional gems like Genius, previously lauded here. But last weekend, I caught a feature which is close to ending its limited-release distribution: Love and Friendship, directed by Whit Stillman.

This delightful romp is based on a Jane Austen novella, Lady Susan, and features Kate Beckinsale and a wonderful crew of British actors, with Stephen Fry and Chloe Sevigny the best known but appearing in modest cameo roles. The intrigue Austen was so expert in capturing concerns a widowed lady’s machinations to find a new husband for herself and a first one for her unmarried daughter in order to insure that they both have means of support in Georgian society (18th century England) where fortunes, country houses, and city residences were all solely within the control of well-off men.

Lady Susan is a schemer par excellence, and given the varied motivations but often equally meretricious circles in which she travels, we end up being more sympathetic to her as a lovable sinner than otherwise might be the situation. The director has done a clever job of familiarizing us with the diverse cast of characters and their motivations by presenting them in old-fashioned panels at the start, categorized both by their location—usually, which country house where they are located—and relationship.

We often forget that Jane Austen was writing in the early days of the development of the English novel. She was influenced by the very first novelists—Richardson and Fielding—and began in the style used then: epistolary, or a novel in letters. This novella was one of her first works, although not published for many years, and was written in that style.

Her perceptions of the way the different characters behave are filled with plenteous use of irony and wit. It is not at all surprising that as is usually the case in her works, the women almost always have a far more penetrating insight into both character and what is actually occurring than the men, who while ostensibly totally in charge of matters relating to fame and fortune, are frequently clueless as to the machinations going on around them.

All of this is beautifully portrayed in this marvelous film. Many parts of it, and certainly many lines, are completely irresistible.

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