In this brilliantly funny movie (trailer), writer-director Whit Stillman takes on a lesser-known early Jane Austen novella, Lady Susan. It’s a a gem of female manipulation cut and polished on male cluelessness, and Lady Susan Vernon is the lapidarist in chief.
In this early epistolary novel (probably written when Austen was only 23), the author’s disdain for the treatment of women is evident, and her character gets her revenge, deliciously. Though it’s still the cake underneath her better-known novels, there it’s masked by a thicker romantic frosting (see this recent post about the dark subtext of Austen’s novels).
Near-penniless, Lady Susan must find a husband for herself and her daughter, and Kate Beckinsale is a powerful Susan, “the most accomplished flirt in all England.” The cast is strong, with Chloë Sevigny as the American Alicia Johnson, Susan’s co-conspirator, eager to avoid being returned to Connecticut, Susan’s perceptive sister-in-law Catherine (played by Emma Greenwell), and long-suffering daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark). Jemma Redgrave, playing Catherine’s mother, immediately reveals herself as an heir to the British acting family through her strong physical resemblance to auntie Vanessa.
The men are cheerfully dim-witted, none more so than Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett). With £10,000 a year, he’s as rich as Darcy. But he’s also “a bit of a rattle”—“Regency slang for blithering idiot,” A.O. Scott reminds us in The New York Times. “How jolly! Tiny green balls. What are they called?” Sir James asks, pushing them around his dinner plate. “Peas.” Catherine’s brother Reginald (Xavier Samuel) is not dim, but even he is no match for Susan’s calculated charm offensive and her “uncanny understanding of men’s natures.”
Quite apropos of the current political season, friends Susan and Alicia blithely justify their most outrageous behavior, putting themselves always on the high ground. At one point, when confronted with her own irrefutable error, Susan snaps, “Facts are horrid things.” Clearly, a woman for this season.
Above and beyond the satisfying plot, delicious characters, and irresistible pull toward respectable matrimony, the charming countryside (filmed in Ireland) and gorgeous costumes are worth the price of admission. Over the story, widow Susan’s costumes go from all-black deep mourning, to light mourning (grey and lavender), to none at all. When she dons that scarlet dress, look out! “It all ends up pretty much as expected,” Scott says, “and yet also manages to take you by surprise.”
Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 99%; audiences 74% (I’m betting audiences find it “talky.” But in the talk, there’s wit.)