Love and Friendship – Hardened to the justice of general reproach

This is my review of Love & Friendship [DVD] [2016].

This film is based closely on “Lady Susan” the lesser known short, unfinished novel written by Jane Austen when she was only nineteen, and never published in her lifetime. Judging by the film, this differed from her more famous works in its focus on a blatantly outrageous and manipulative anti-heroine who uses her sex appeal and wit to bamboozle men, and to a large extent gets away with it. In today’s world, she could have employed her intelligence, charm and grasp of psychology as an independent, successful career woman, but in Jane Austen’s day an impoverished (it is never explained quite why although it may have been because Lady Susan is clearly a spendthrift) widow with a teenage daughter had little option but to sponge off relatives and seek husbands for them both. Too poor to pay a servant or her daughter Frederica’s school bills, forced to hand over her jewels when unpaid tradesmen shrewdly gang up on her, Lady Susan is obliged to use her wits to find a practical solution, hopefully having her cake and eating it by hanging on to her married lover in the process.

This production reminded me of “Dangerous Liaisons”, with the same kind of cynical amorality. Towards the end, Lady Susan pays the sweet and long-suffering Frederica a rare , inevitably backhanded compliment: “My daughter has shown herself to be cunning and manipulative – I couldn’t be more pleased.” In fact, this self-absorbed woman, unable to admit to any personal faults except as some kind of virtue or wholly reasonable behaviour, is trying to make the best of a situation she has for once failed to submit to her total control.

The dialogue is wordy, but quick-fire and funny, often more explicitly acid and less subtle than I recall Austen as being, perhaps because she did not write much actual speech in what was in fact an “episotolary” novel, consisting of an exchange of letters. Yet some of the best barbed comments have been culled word-for-word from the original: “My dear Alicia, of what a mistake were you guilty in marrying a man of his age! Just old enough to be formal, ungovernable, and to have the gout; too old to be agreeable, too young to die.” Or, “where there is a disposition to dislike, a motive will never be wanting.”

Leaping from one scene to the next, and leaving a certain amount implied and left to the viewer’s imagination, the production often feels disjointed, but at least this gives it some pace. Skilfully acted and visually beautiful, the film is highly entertaining, but did not impel me to do more than download free the original novel which I suspect will remain unread while the well-dramatised plot is still fresh in my mind.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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