A film by Whit Stillman is a rare treat for anyone who likes witty, intelligently-written, dialogue-heavy pieces, and the usual loquacity is present and correct in his latest, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s posthumous epistolary novel Lady Susan. For this film Stillman has reunited the two stars of 1998’s The Last Days Of Disco, Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny, with the former playing widowed schemer Lady Susan Vernon and the latter playing her American friend and confidant Alicia Johnson. It’s a comedy of manners, and the story is fairly slight, being largely concerned with Lady Susan’s attempts to engineer a secure financial future for herself and her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark). However there’s lots to enjoy as Susan manoeuvres her way through polite society in order to do this, all the while ensuring that she carries on enjoying the upper class lifestyle to which she has become accustomed. This involves the subtle manipulation of various men and in-laws, some of whom mistrust Susan because of a number of prior scandals in her private life, and the story moves between various grand houses in Kent, Surrey and London as the main character travels to-and-fro. Fans of period drama will be pleased to know that the production and costume design are a match for most faithful Austen adaptations, despite Stillman and his crew working with a fairly small budget, but the real draw is the droll dialogue, which comes alive thanks to the excellent delivery of the actors. This is a very funny film, and as good as Beckinsale is it’s likely the character most people will remember in time is Tom Bennett’s nice-but-dim suitor Sir James Martin, who gets the loudest laughs by some distance. Bennett steals every scene that he’s in and – as with any film featuring such a strong character – you begin to miss him when he isn’t there. That said, Stillman’s film doesn’t sag at any point, the focus very much remaining on smart women who have the measure of their husbands, partners or male relatives; Lady Susan herself is a fantastic character, constantly deflecting any criticism and twisting the words and deeds of others to her own benefit, and if Beckinsale has delivered a better performance then I haven’t seen it. There are some nice formal touches, too: characters and residences are introduced by way of brief pen pictures, while the text of some letters appears on screen as characters read aloud, which strengthens one or two jokes that might otherwise be missed. Very good, and I say that as someone who often avoids period drama like the plague.
Directed by: Whit Stillman.
Written by: Whit Stillman. Based on Lady Susan by Jane Austen.
Starring: Kate Beckinsale, Chloë Sevigny, Xavier Samuel, Morfydd Clark, Emma Greenwell, James Fleet, Stephen Fry, Gemma Redgrave, Tom Bennett, Justin Edwards, Jenn Murray.
Cinematography: Richard Van Oosterhout.
Editing: Sophie Corra.
Music: Mark Suozzo.
Running Time: 93 minutes.