Love and Friendship (2016) adapted from Jane Austen’s Lady Susan by Whit Stillman

I mentioned in my review of Lady Susan that the reason I sat down to read Austen’s epistolary novella was because a friend suggested getting a group together to watch the film adaptation: Love and Friendship. As time went on, and the evening we were going to watch the film came closer, I became more and more intrigued about this film and just how, exactly, they were going to adapt it; in my opinion, the strength of Lady Susan lies in its ability to inform the reader of events happening off-screen very much through the eyes of a specific character. Having now seen it, I can say that it is a very funny, very enjoyable film, but that some of these difficulties of adapting an epistolary narrative do show through.

Firstly, I have to say that Love and Friendship is really funny. In the UK, we tend to be a bit more reserved about laughing out loud a lot in cinemas: we don’t want to draw attention to ourselves or disrupt others’ enjoyment of a film. However, the whole cinema was laughing throughout, from slight chuckles at the start, to proper laughter later on. Kate Beckinsale does a good job of bringing just the right amount of sincere insincerity to Lady Susan, with several of the funnier lines lifted straight from the novella. Lady Susan’s confidences to Alicia Johnson and Mrs Cross put a light-hearted spin on her manipulation and general disregard for the emotions of those around her; Stillman clearly recognised this as a strength of the novella and maximised on this in the film.

In my review of Lady Susan, I said that the female characters were always ten steps ahead of the male characters: this element was adapted to particular comedic affect in the film. From Sir Reginald De Courcy’s confusion as to why his wife wanted him to read the whole letter from their daughter, to Charles Vernon’s observation that perhaps Frederica is upset because she hasn’t eaten since lunch, the male characters provide a nonsensical commentary on the action of the narrative and reinforce the skills of the female characters in hiding the drama under layers and layers of pointed comments. However, the character we all came away talking about, which I definitely was not expecting, was Sir James Martin. Barely more than an idea of a character in the novella, Tom Bennett does a fantastic job of portraying the hilarity of Martin’s absolute cluelessness. His unintentionally awkward speech about there being ‘no church… and no hill’ had me laughing so hard I nearly missed the next scene.

The difficultly of adapting epistolary narratives is that, by very nature, the narrative is based completely on exposition. That works in an epistolary narrative, but it does not translate so well to screen. Stillman had clearly thought carefully about how he could create natural opportunities for Lady Susan, in particular, to voice aloud the confidences she writes in the novella: Alicia Johnson is less of the long-distance friend she is in the novella, and the introduction of the new character, Mrs Cross, allows Lady Susan to talk through her initial plans for her arrival at Churchill. However, often these confidential conversations are very one-sided (like a letter) with the first scene between Alicia and Lady Susan being particularly stilted and expositional. It does get better throughout, and I don’t necessarily think this harms the overall effect of the film: my housemate, who finds it hard to follow films where there is too much talking, really enjoyed it and didn’t have any trouble following the action.

However, this leaning towards exposition more than ‘showing’ comes back in a more jarring way towards the very end of the film. Whilst Stillman has clearly tightened the ending to make it feel more complete, he clearly also felt that the message of the film wasn’t clear enough, and gave Bennett’s Sir James Martin a speech that explicitly articulated Austen’s purpose in writing the original novella. Admirable as that purpose is, I do feel that the point had already been made very clearly, and that speech seemed not only unnecessary but, frankly, a little condescending.

Overall, Love and Friendship was a very funny film that I enjoyed very much, despite its tendency to be a little more ‘on the nose’ than I usually like. I would definitely recommend it to any fan of Austen-style period dramas, although with the note that it is a slightly different style to what we would usually consider an ‘Austen film’. You do not have to have read Lady Susan to enjoy the film: of our little group, there were only two of us who had read it, but all of us enjoyed the film. None of us could really see any reason for it to be called Love and Friendship rather than Lady Susan, but that’s a question for another day.

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