Fully Formed Hilarious

Love & Friendship, (U) 2016 FR/IR/NE 93 minutes, written, directed and produced by Whit Stillman, with Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny, based on the novella, Lady Susan, by Jane Austen, in cinemas nationwide, Friday, 27th May

The problem here is that this review is all about Jane Austen (the ubiquitous) and Whit Stillman (who, what?). How to make this gripping? Is it possible?

In the first place, who is Whit Stillman? (Everyone knows who Jane Austen is.) Whit Stillman is from a very prominent, very rich, but dysfunctional, American family. His first film, Metropolitan, concerns a character, Tom Townsend, somewhat like Stillman, living with his mother in straitened circumstances, while his father still inhabits the rarified atmosphere of the Upper East Side of Manhattan. We never see his father, but we do see a box of toys, discarded on a pavement, which we subsequently discover were Tom's. His father has moved away without telling him. It's not such a wonderful life.

This film is his fifth in 26 years. Looked at one way, this is probably not entirely his fault. Looked at another way, it is absolutely his fault. I think his films are terrific, but they don't exactly match up to the kind of product placement that the modern multiplex demands. He seems to make no apology of this.

It may be interesting at this point to say, in case you didn't know, that Whit Stillman films are part of the reason that I like the cinema. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that Whit Stillman could be held responsible for our opening a single screen, art house cinema in Kent 10 years ago, though we never actually showed a Whit Stillman film. (It's still going actually, the cinema, thanks for asking.)

Back to the review:

So, do we really need another adaptation of Jane Austen, especially of a book no one has heard of, let alone read? Even if she might have written part of it in Worthing? (What else was there to do in Worthing, in 1805, than write a book?)

Jane Austen is a cultural icon. We don't have to have read her books to have an opinion about her. Conversely, adaptations can be somewhat decorous, deferential, solemn. Jane Austen is like Shakespeare - this is who we are, judge us by our literary canon.

Austen's novella, Lady Susan, isn't counted as one of her five major novels. It's fairly short, but dense, in the form of a series of letters. Two of the correspondents, Lady Susan herself and her friend, Mrs Johnson, are a racy pair, up to all sorts of intrigues with husbands and lovers. The scandal isn't easy to disentangle from the formal language, and it's open to interpretation just how Jane Austen herself feels about her characters. (The ambiguity is, of course, what's so great about Austen.)

Austen seems to have tried to get Lady Susan published, but without success. Her now famous novels were published later, substantially re-worked from earlier versions. Perhaps if she had lived beyond her 42 years she may have done the same with Lady Susan.

So this is the opportunity Whit Stillman has seized. He hasn't attempted a faithful adaptation, but has created a kind of conversation with the book, and with Austen. In fact, if you know your Whit Stillman, there is as much of him in this film as there is of Austen.

But don't let that put you off!

Two things about Jane Austen are unarguable - her control, especially of what her characters are privy to, and her understated irony. Sometimes, just sometimes, her books can impart a sense that she is perhaps a little too judgemental, that some of her characters, and this could include Lady Susan herself, are performing for Austen's benefit rather than their own, that as a writer she walks a fine line between cruelty and honesty. (Though given the material desperation of her own situation at times in her life, a satirical cast of mind is entirely understandable.)

Being in the form of letters, written with the luxury of reflection, Austen can show the characters giving events the best possible cast from their own point of view. She can allow the writer to have one interpretation and we, the readers, another. She can play the game of 'how do we all deceive ourselves?'; the cruelty thing again. She is giving her readers licence to laugh at her characters expense.

Stillman, presenting the story as film, as drama, has to have the characters interacting directly. They don't have time to go away and work out the best way to put things. They have to live in the moment. How is it possible, then, to retain Austen's control, her irony, when the characters appear before us, speaking for themselves?

He does a very clever thing. He makes the two friends, Lady Susan and Mrs Johnson, Whit Stillman characters. This without their losing any of their essential Jane Austen-ness, even with the added complication of Mrs Johnson being transformed into an American.

How exactly would you describe a Whit Stillman character? They are big on: 'on the one hand this, on the other hand that'; they look at things in contrasting ways, they like to say things twice, slightly differently: 'that's irrational, that's not rational at all'; Lady Susan uses the word 'pretext' often; one situation can be the pretext for another imperative. They can speak long and complex speeches without moving their hands.

Lady Susan, who can see two sides to everything, who can give any event any number of different interpretations, finds herself surrounded by people who are incapable of seeing anything in any way except to their own advantage, who are trapped by their own prejudices. It is almost as if Jane Austen is unwittingly and unwillingly starring in her own story.

Ultimately this is very funny. Sir James Martin, little more than a shadow in the book, is fully formed hilarious in the film.

From the very tall husband to the very short curate, to the people we're accustomed to seeing in costume dramas, such as Stephen Fry or James Fleet, there are many subtle spoofs of the Austen oeuvre to enjoy.

I wish I could go on. I love this film. Go and see it. Please.

Paul Corcoran