Love As Bloodsport

Jane Austen has long been an iconic author, of course, but at the moment she's enjoying a triple exposure on the page, screen, and stage. In Love & Friendship, the delightful filmmaker Whit Stillman (Metropolitan) has adapted a newly discovered Austen novella called Lady Susan. Serendipitously, at the same time, the downtown theater group Bedlam has mounted a wildly praised version of Austen's Sense and Sensibility (currently on hiatus, but due to reopen June 17).

Why, I wondered, is Austen so hot today? It has to be that from some 200 years back she's speaking to our present-day culture. And in fact, both the Bedlam company and Whit Stillman have gone behind the decorous manners of Austen's Georgian world to expose, as if lit in neon, the money-grubbing mentality powering the landed gentry, attached tooth and nail to their acreage, the period's signifiers of money and status. Beneath the satin waistcoats beats the same greed as among today's one per-centers, though America's version of England's masters of the hunt don't bother with the pretty manners.

Austen's portraits of women also speak to our age. Because of Georgian inheritance laws deeding all property to men, women of that period lacking wealth had to bag a husband to have any kind of life at all. Today, of course, women can have most any kind of life on their own, yet when I look around my 'hood (the UWS) at all the stay-at-home moms who've opted out of work, I'm practically spirited back to the '50s, when women were as financially dependent on men as in Austen-land.

Which brings me back to Stillman's delicious Love & Friendship. If his previous films are intriguingly unanchored in time, so does Love reflect both the Georgian period of Austen and Stillman's sharply comic critique of it. Undergirding the plot is that familiar Austen quest: a woman without money on the make for a mate. As the widowed (and impoverished) Lady Susan Vernon, Kate Beckinsale (glorious) delivers a glittering, comic portrait of such a woman, as she deploys her sole weapons - her sexuality and wit - as a means of economic survival.

We first meet her at Churchill, the lavish estate of her in-laws, where she's laying low to wait out some nasty rumors about her dalliance with a certain lord (labeled in the intro as "divinely handsome"), who's inconveniently married. At the estate Lady Susan meets studly young Reginald deCourcy (Xavier Samuel), parrying his allusions to those pesky rumors and instantly charming him. Their courtship is conducted in decorous walks about the estate, as she maneuvers him into marriage proposal mode. The marriage is of course vehemently opposed by the deCourcy clan - all the reason to "humble these DeCourcy's" Lady Susan declares to her sidekick, the American Alicia Johnson (a miscast Chloe Sevigny, perhaps on hand to reprise the pairing with Beckingsale in Disco).

The romance is menaced by the unexpected arrival of Lady Susan's daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark), who rather fancies Reginald herself. Lady Susan counters by inviting to the house Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett) as a match for her daughter, a filthy rich dunce who riffs about "the twelve commandments" in hilarious manner. When Frederica protests, "but marriage is for your whole life," Lady Susan responds, "not in my experience." Stillman deftly steers this contredanse toward a raffish ending that was not in Austen's novella and would have made her blush.

Throughout, the characters let fly with witty banter that at times sounds more Oscar Wilde and Evelyn Waugh than Austen - yet the dialog both honors the original source and delivers barbed truths with a modern ring ("too old to be governable, too young to die," a woman says of her husband). Beckinsale delivers her complicated stretches of dialog with naturalness and flair. As pretty boy deCourcy, Xavier Samuel is pitch perfect as the Stillman-esque male, holding the winning hand yet a little clueless, and certainly no match for a mastermind like Lady Susan, who in another life could have been a Disraeli or Metternich. In Stillman's wickedly knowing comedy the politics of the boudoir and drawing room become a blood sport.

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