One of the most enduring pleasures of stories with charismatic protagonists is watching those characters impose their will on the world around them through sheer strength and force of personality. The best ones have always done it with a sense of style: Odysseus outsmarts the blinded Cyclops and throws in a few taunts for good measure. The Old Testament’s Jacob spends his early life cheating other people and making getaways before they figure out what’s going on. John McClane, Jessica Jones, and basically every lead ever created by Aaron Sorkin all are cut from the same cloth. It’s fun to watch winners win—especially if they spit a few well-chosen barbs as they do it. (Let the person who has never fantasized about verbally demolishing a boss or exacting vengeance on a queue-jumper cast the first stone.)While Love and Friendship dishes up the antihero antics with panache, it becomes something truly special when it uses Lady Susan’s exploits to take us into unexpected thematic territory.
Antiheroes form a subset of this character type, and they are arguably more popular than ever in the present age of prestige cable dramas. It’s not a character type we expect to see in a Jane Austen adaptation, though—which is just one reason why Whit Stillman’s Love and Friendship (adapted from the little-known novella Lady Susan) is such a delight. Its protagonist, Lady Susan Vernon, epitomizes everything we love about an antihero—especially in the opportunity she provides us to take an over-the-shoulder peek at a life untrammeled by the scruples that most of us take for granted. While Love and Friendship dishes up the antihero antics with panache, though, it becomes something truly special when it uses Lady Susan’s exploits to take us into unexpected thematic territory.
Lady Susan’s grand entrance into her story is in fact a grand exit, showing her scarpering out of a manor house after her intimacy with another woman’s husband becomes a scandal. This being a Jane Austen story, romantic scandals are tsunami-sized perils, but Susan (played by a never-better Kate Beckinsale) rides the wave of rumor with aplomb. In fact, she seems to relish the challenge of neutralizing threats to her reputation. It’s a hard-knock life for a high-society lady with no fortune and a deceased husband, and it’s even worse if she’s past the ripe old spinster age of thirty-five; why shouldn’t she do everything in her power to ensure a comfortable life for herself—especially if she has the brains and guile to have fun while she does it?
The killjoy answer to that question is probably something like “Because of basic decency.” Motivated primarily by whim and a desire to take the wealthy DeCourcy family down a peg or two, Lady Susan sets her sights on the family’s young scion, Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel). Reginald is handsome and gallant, but also way too ingenuous for his own good, so he is an ideal mark. Susan flatters, manipulates, and occasionally browbeats her way to her goal, pausing to notice her mousy daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) only to belittle her or use her as a pawn. Watching her go to work is like watching Pride and Prejudice from Caroline Bingley’s point of view.
It’s also massively entertaining. Love and Friendship gives us Austen’s wit infused with the refined callousness of Oscar Wilde. At one point, Susan offhandedly tells a friend that she can’t wait for the friend’s stodgy older husband to die of gout, and everyone laughs because (1) he really is a bone-dry bore, and (2) she says it with the British knack for euphemism and understatement. Only in Austen could a character greet the unraveling of her web of lies by sighing, “Facts are horrid things.” Lady Susan is a bit of a villain, but she’s our villain from start to finish.
And that’s antiheroes for you: sometimes their stories are meant to provoke consideration of the extremes of human behavior, and sometimes they are meant only to be escapism, but either way, they are always compelling. In Lady Susan’s case, her ability to word-ninja her way into getting whatever she wants serves both purposes. On its surface, her sharp dialogue (and Beckinsale’s tart, perfectly paced delivery) is pure pleasure, whether she’s launching a cutting remark at an adversary or expounding on the general uselessness of husbands and warm emotions.
Beneath Love and Friendship‘s verbal fireworks and jaundiced view of marriage, though, is a sly commentary on social conventions. Conniving though Susan may be, life hasn’t presented her with many options to begin with. As a woman in Georgian England, she has very little direct influence over her and Frederica’s fate. The only path to financial solvency for them is marriage, which concentrates all the power in the hands of men. Women are faced with two options in this movie: either submit to a match and hope for the best (which often involves running out the clock until the husband kicks the bucket), or turn to manipulation and intrigue to make their way in the world. For a woman of Lady Susan’s wits, only one of those options is really an option. We sympathize with her constrained existence even as we chuckle at her utter ruthlessness.
To underscore the point, Love and Friendship’s menfolk all exist on the same spectrum, one end of which is inhabited by the vain and oblivious while the other end is populated by useless idiots. Since this is a comedy, all of these characters are sketched out with a light touch—for instance, Frederica’s suitor Sir James (a hilarious Tom Bennett) is awesomely cretinous, yet still endearing in his puppyish enthusiasm. This representation of male characters raises the stakes for the women protagonists; that Lady Susan should be obliged to join herself to one of them seems all the more unjust in light of their unworthiness. Her deviousness is a little unsavory, but … well, have you seen what the alternative is?
This ambivalence toward Susan’s maneuverings is a modern attitude, not just in its feminist slant, but also in its moral underpinnings. The newly independent American colonies of Austen’s day had only just codified the “pursuit of happiness” as an inalienable right, but today it is axiomatic—isn’t it every person’s imperative to become fully self-actualized in whichever way they deem fit? Love and Friendship seizes upon the tension this belief creates and accentuates it with stylistic touches that are both period-appropriate and cheekily postmodern (see, for example, the character introductions, which are framed as fourth-wall-breaking cameo portraits). It invites viewers to consider whether the rewards of integrity and propriety, even in the face of repression, outweigh the difficulties.
To its credit, Love and Friendship doesn’t offer a definitive answer. To do so would have made for a tidier tale, but also would have sacrificed the sneaky complexity that sets the film apart from other cinematic adaptations of Austen. Almost all of the characters—even the duplicitous Susan—find happiness of one sort or another. The film doesn’t force Susan to have some sort of come-to-Jesus moment, nor does it visit any negative consequences on her as a result of her behavior. She pursues her goals at all costs, and by the end she has her reward in full. Whit Stillman is not making a morality play here.
And yet Love and Friendship is not a moral shrug, either. The story ends, as these stories often do, at a wedding that exalts the sort of humble goodness any viewer familiar with the Beatitudes will recognize immediately. Vows are exchanged. Toasts are made. The groom reads a poem about the transcendent beauty of simple virtue. Then Frederica, whose talent for singing has been consistently squelched by Lady Susan as one of the film’s running gags, stands up before the wedding guests to exercise her gift. Her meek voice blossoms into song. The camera cuts to a shot of Lady Susan, who is almost lost among the crowd of guests, and then cuts back to Frederica, who stands alone, upright, and prominent within the frame. It is a celebration in more ways than one.