Film Review – Jane Austen’s Comedy

Scene from Love and Friendship film

Sir James Martin is Austen’s most foolish caricature

I must admit that although I love Jane Austen and have read all her novels, I hadn’t ever attempted her novella Lady Susan, partly because it is written almost entirely through letters. I’m highly grateful to Radio 4 that I even knew about this film (entitled Love and Friendship) based on the novella, as I haven’t seen any advertisements for it. I spent a long time looking up every cinema within reach of Cardiff and was relieved to discover that it would be shown at Chapter Arts Centre.   

I decided to read the story first, as I had a good three weeks or so to wait for the film. It is brimming with Austen’s usual wry sense of humour, and is by far the most ironic of her works. The story is fairly short, and (due to the fact that it is written in the form of letters) all of the action takes place off stage. I did wonder whether Whit Stillman (the Director) would have simply transposed it all into live action, but in fact the most hilarious letter-related scenes are expertly merged together with the rest.

Love and Friendship film posterThe film begins with Lady Susan, recently widowed, leaving Langford (home of the Manwaring family), after she has succeeded in wooing both Lord Manwaring (described by a screen caption as ‘a divinely attractive man’) away from his hysterical wife, as well as Sir James Martin (a rich fool) away from his intended. Austen’s most manipulative character, she wheedles her way into the next country house (Churchill), where another young man (Reginald De Courcy) awaits.

Lady Susan’s treatment of her daughter, Frederica, is abominable. Played by Morfydd Clark, Frederica is sensible, intelligent and kind, the complete opposite to her flirtatious mother, who makes her out to be deceitful and disobedient. She is packed off to a boarding school in London, before attempting to run away and eventually ending up being re-united with her reluctant mother at Churchill. Lady Susan is determined to wed her to Sir James Martin, despite the fact that he is a bumbling idiot, and Frederica cannot stand his attentions.

film clip

Lady Susan confides in her friend Alicia, who is married to Mr Johnson, played by Stephen Fry, “too old to be governable and too young to die”

The film follows the original plot closely, and includes some great lines directly from Austen’s work, although there is also some additional material which serves to heighten the sense of irony and jest. From the novelty of peas, to the ‘twelve’ commandments, the companion whose job it is ‘to pack and unpack’, and the husband who paraphrases rather than reads a letter to his wife, the film is crammed full with amusement and hilarity, and many of us in Chapter’s cinema were laughing out loud throughout.

My only real criticism is that the film should have been entitled Lady Susan (not Austen’s title but less bland than ‘Love and Friendship’) and that it should have been on general release. I’m certain there are many people out there who would have gone to see it had they known of its existence.

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