Twice in “Love & Friendship”, a Whit Stillman film based on an epistolary Jane Austen novel published well after her death, a gaggle of British aristocrats indulge in unflattering gossip about Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale), a Georgian Era widow, only to be interrupted by Lady Susan herself. Both times her sudden appearance freezes the gossipers in place, their mouths agape at being caught in the act, while Lady Susan coolly owns their discomfiture by rubbing their faces in it via haughtiness so polite the less sharp gossipers might not even realize her true intent. The implication is clear: Lady Susan owns the room even when she’s not in it, an irrepressibly wily character repeatedly dropping verbal bombs that explode on impact, jettisoning subtext for implicit meaning instead, civility dripping with poison, lines brought to peerless life by Kate Beckinsale, so often underused in movies unworthy of her skill and now unleashed in a role created by Austen and cultivated by Stillman that mammothly marries her ability to allure with her dexterity for effecting a cold, cold heart.
There is a moment when her character is searching for the word to describe Churchill, the country estate outside London of her brother-in-law where she has taken residence, and settles on “charming”. It’s a dig, of course, rather than a compliment, but it’s more what Beckinsale does in the moment just before she says it – she pauses. And she looks away from the person with whom she’s conversing, into the air, as if she’s searching for the word and then sees it and then plucks it. “Charming!” Of course she doesn’t conjure it out of the air because everything she says and everything she does is deliberate; she merely means to give the impression that she’s thinking things through. Because if the many male chuckleheads around her think she’s thinking things through, they’ll be obliged to believe they are persuading her when, really, she’s persuading them.
She has been left moneyless after the death of her husband and has been publicly ridiculed for an affair with the married Lord Manwaring (Lochlann O'Mearáin), leaving her in a precarious position of needing to find a new husband to maintain her place in the pecking order but having to do so with much of polite society not-so-politely aligned against her. What’s more, she is simultaneously seeking a suitor for her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark). The emergent irony is that the man, Reginald De Courcy (Xavier Samuel), Lady Susan targets is the same man for whom Frederica develops eyes, and who can blame the young girl? After all, Lady Susan’s pick for her little girl, Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), while well off, is described as “a bit of a rattle.”
Though De Courcy is also never near as smart as his self-impressed countenance would suggest, Sir James (Tom Bennett) really takes the cake, a pompous, oblivious dufus who no doubt would have been the first one to fall in the chocolate river at Willy Wonka’s factory. He’s the biggest joke of the movie, and he is indicative of a society where money seems simply to materialize for men, no matter their intellect, while even the smartest women, like Lady Susan, are reduced to second class status no matter how posh their accoutrement or digs.
This is not to suggest that Lady Susan tears up these antiquated rules; no, she merely operates within them, cunningly if gleefully, as evinced by the way she and her American co-conspirator Mrs. Johnson (Chloe Sevigny) who revel in the fast ones they pull, never failing to find pleasure in the rules of the same game that exists to keep them down. Yet simultaneously, that keeping them down is what keeps the movie afloat. If it is difficult to empathize with Lady Susan for all the artful verbal acid she spews, and for the less than high regard she openly admits to having for her own daughter, it is just as easy to empathize with her for the deviously delightful way in which she gets exactly what she wants in a culture specifically designed to ensure the opposite.