Books · Film & Television

Movie Review: ‘Love & Friendship’ — Jane Austen Addresses Marriage and Mothers

rs_506x749-160330170802-634.Love-and-friendship-movie-poster-tt-033016Lizzie Bennet and Emma Woodhouse were both 20 years old. Elinor Dashwood was 19; Fanny Price was 18. And, Catherine Morland just 17. Other than poor Anne Elliot (a decided spinster at 27), the average age of an Austen heroine is 18.8. This doesn’t make her novels (or the marvelous movies they’ve inspired) any less delightful. But, it does get harder and harder to relate to her main characters as we grow older.

Enter Lady Susan, a widowed mother of 40 or so. She is refined, attractive, and boasts a far superior intellect than the friends and family she surrounds herself with. It’s a shame she’s so manipulative and mercenary.

Then again, that’s at least half the pleasure of the scintillating new movie Love & Friendship.

Love & Friendship is based on Jane Austen’s early epistolary novella, Lady Susan. Some scholars believe that Austen based the story on a real-life acquaintance, Mrs. Craven, a hypocritical fortune hunter and the mother of one of the author’s dearest friends. Although Austen wrote Lady Susan while she was still in her teens (it was published some 50 years after her death), she was already exploring the themes and character studies that made her later, greater works such enduring and beloved classics.

In and after Lady Susan, Austen seems to have become weary of the limitations afforded by telling a story through letters. In fact, the novella ends abruptly after letter 41: “This correspondence, by a meeting between some of the parties, and a separation between the others, could not, to the great detriment of the Post Office revenue, be continued any longer.” The work doesn’t have the satisfying full-circle finish of Pride & Prejudice or Sense & Sensibility.

RELATED: Mothers in Literature: The Good, the Bad, and the Murderous

Happily, Love & Friendship writer-director Whit Stillman has filled in some of Lady Susan’s blanks — while adhering to much of the formula that “Janeites” crave (impoverished young woman seeking wealthy husband who isn’t a blithering idiot). Stillman is best known for The Last Days of Disco, Metropolitan and Barcelona, among others. Although set in more contemporary times, these films delivered the same sort of sharp social commentary that Austen’s work did centuries earlier. Stillman seems completely at home in a Georgian drawing room.

The movie opens with rapid — and wonderfully wry — introductions to a dozen or so characters. Lady Susan is being evicted from a great house where she has made herself objectionable to two generations of Manwaring women, seducing the married master of the house and wooing a wealthy bachelor, Sir James Martin, away from the family’s daughter on behalf of her own. In financial straits, she takes refuge at the home of her late husband’s brother and his wife, the Vernons. Her reputation has preceded her however, and she gets a rather chilly welcome except from her sister-in-law’s handsome young brother Reginald, who is immediately enthralled. Her daughter Frederica arrives from boarding school arousing sympathy from all but her mother who insists that she accept Sir Martin. Throughout, Lady Susan enjoys the confidence of an American, Alicia Johnson, despite her husband’s disapproval and threats to ship her back to Connecticut.

Phew! Don’t worry if you’re having trouble keeping up. Stillman does an admirable job navigating us through what becomes a bit of a maze. Familiar plot twists include trips to London, secret-revealing letters, and matches made, broken, and remade with more suitable partners.

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