What absolute joy this film is. The sense of fun and delight in being bad is not what one usually associates with Austen but it is exactly the reason her best observations cut so deeply. I may have to reconsider Whit Stillman.
First I should admit to being a hoarder. I had not read Lady Susan which is the text for this adaptation despite the title. With so few Austen novels in existence, I had always kept this early epistolary novel in reserve for a day so terrible that only some ‘new’ Austen could cheer me. I suppose I ought to be happy that day has not yet arrived, but having seen the film of course I hoard it no more.
Kate Beckinsale is flawless in the title role, which is a challenge: she is so awful that everyone hates her and yet she is such a genius that they cannot help admiring her. How wonderful it is to see a woman on screen called genius with genuine admiration. Her confidence is unflagging and no set back cannot be out-maneuvered. Her pleasure in manipulating others is too great to be kept to herself, so she needs a confidant in Mrs. Johnson, married to respectability though it is not to her liking. Indeed she finds her husband, ‘too old to be agreeable, and too young to die’.
Chloë Sevigny is certainly not the obvious choice for the role and I found her American tones a bit discordant at first (cf. Sarah Polley as ‘Selma the Witch Woman’ in Beowulf & Grendel) but they did a smart thing in making her nationality the point. Her husband’s only real weapon against her is the ever-present threat of moving to the US. I laughed out loud at her shuddering in the face of the horrifying prospect of being sent to –gasp! — Hartford.
The cast is terrific. Small roles are made vivid: Jenn Murray as the wailing Lady Manwaring, who conveys incredible frustration and fury. Jemma Redgrave and James Fleet as the DeCourceys convey effortlessly the rich complications of a long relationship. Morfydd Clark, in addition to having a wonderful voice, brought to life the transformation of Lady Susan’s daughter Frederica from a timid and frankly abused child to a young woman who blossoms under her first experiences with kindness.
Tom Bennett’s comic turn as Sir James Martin verges on going too far but stops just short of it. His misunderstanding about the name of the Vernon estate had me guffawing. Not an idiot, just ‘a bit of a rattle’ is an Austenian phrase we really need to bring back.
But this is Lady Susan’s story and it is so much fun. It has all the brashness of youth: Austen’s mature work is both kinder and more sharply observed, but this is spirited and reckless, a tone the film captures precisely. Watching Lady Susan turn the prejudice of the smug Reginald DeCourcey (Xavier Samuel) into admiration offers a showcase of both Lady Susan’s skill and Beckinsale’s. Fabulous.
The trailer has some of the really good lines, so watch it at your peril.