Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny star in the movie Love & Friendship.
Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny star in the movie Love & Friendship. Ross McDonnell

Movie brings Jane Austen’s comedic genius to the screen

IN DUSTY classrooms, the reputation of the great Jane Austen sits faded and undignified. Decades of intellectual erosion have reduced one of the greatest ever literary minds to a purveyor of stale, polite romanticism.

Hordes of fans will naturally come to her defence, yet it's hard to avoid the feeling Austen's full talents have become much neglected of late. So the arrival of Whit Stillman's Love & Friendship, an adaptation of Austen's early novella Lady Susan, announces a near-cavalcade of utter astonishment.

Jane Austen - the great comedian? Indeed, one of the greatest triumphs of Stillman's utterly delightful film is a sense of vindication for Austen's humour, and for the stiletto point of her wit.

"She's a serious comedian, it's proper comic writing," enthuses Kate Beckinsale, who stars as Lady Susan Vernon.

"She's a genius, but I think we've gotten kind of used to it," she continues. "Her social observation and her character observation are unbelievable. I think she's gotten kind of tagged with being purely romantic, and she isn't; her wit is really extraordinary."

In some ways Love & Friendship benefits from eschewing the familiar. Lady Susan is a little-known, epistolary novella penned by Austen in her early years.

Focused on the exploits of Lady Susan Vernon, a widow in search of a husband for both herself and her daughter, Stillman needed to add surprisingly little to the charms of its original narrative to tease out the humour (the film is already heralded as one of the funniest of the year).

Austen's work has always bristled with humour. It's merely a blessing that those like Stillman are able to recognise its beats, and so deftly translate them to the screen in a manner undeniable to 21st century audiences.

In fact, Stillman's own unique sensibilities only really override Austen's in the character of Sir James Martin, though he just happens to be one of the film's highlights, thanks to a gleefully witless performance delivered by Tom Bennett.

Perhaps one of the keys to Love & Friendship's success as an adaptation is Stillman's own healthy admiration of Austen's work. When asked what the author had to offer modern audiences, he was swift to reply. "I think it's sort of the reverse. I think, what can we learn from her? I kind of put people from the past up on a pedestal. I don't think, in a lot of ways, that we're at their level. I think reading Jane Austen well, and appreciating her, makes you a better person."

In Love & Friendship things end in a feeling of satisfactory balance, here achieved through the careful manipulations of Lady Susan, which see her both quite scandalously tangled in the affairs of married men and eligible bachelors.

Yet what's so peculiar about Lady Susan is that her moral lapses go entirely unpunished, surprisingly so, when the adulteress of Mansfield Park receives such grim judgment and a bleak fate.

Is this why Austen neither fully completed her novel, leaving her conclusion as a hastily written postscript, nor submitted it for publication? Was Lady Susan simply too forward-looking for the world she lived in?

"I like to think," Beckinsale reflects, "in a totally fanciful way, in which I've got no authority whatsoever, that it's Jane Austen expressing some of the frustration of that time by creating this sort of superhero character who decides not to be restrained by any of those things that were restraining women at the time.

"The big question to me is how come Jane Austen didn't publish it? I think it must have just been too much for her, even," Beckinsale concludes, though she remarks in hope that Austen would look kindly on what she and Stillman have created from her unfinished manuscript.

To see that, today, Austen can once more be truly vindicated.

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