Stillman’s films are all comedies of manners and in some way period pieces.

Directed by Whit Stillman
Written by Whit Stillman, based on a novel by Jane Austen
Rated PG, 94 minutes

Jane Austen wrote Lady Susan when just a slip of a girl, aged 18 or 19, between 1793 and 1795. She revised it again in 1805 but it went unpublished until 1871, by which time Austen was long dead and awaiting rediscovery in English letters.

In terms of her own career, it’s atypical. Austen tells the story of a bright, unscrupulous, extraordinarily attractive woman who manipulates men with consummate ease. She is, according to one of her victims, ‘the most accomplished coquette in England’. The novella is written as a series of letters.

It does fit Austen’s more famous works in other ways. Lady Susan struggles to find a husband for herself and her ‘stupid’ daughter after the death of her first husband. That question of freedom and independence bothers Lady Susan only in practical, rather than intellectual terms. She needs a rich husband; emancipation is hardly a concern for someone so unscrupulous.

Whit Stillman borrowed liberally from Mansfield Park in his first movie, Metropolitan, from 1990, so he has an affinity with Jane Austen. He also likes Lady Susan’s lack of conscience, which is important in filming an adaptation, because she is potentially an awful piece of work. Both novel and film succeed on the fact that she’s so comically gifted in her mastery of the art of being a complete bitch.

Kate Beckinsale takes much of the credit for the film’s success. She has always had good comic timing, often in inverse proportion to her choice of bad roles. She has the looks for Lady Susan, the airs and graces, the ability to convince us that this woman would be famous in any period in England, but especially this one – the late 18th century. She can also handle Stillman’s version of Austen’s dialogue, which is not easy. This movie is talky and more talky. Stillman has always liked wordy scripts; this one adds the period flavour that turns it into the vocal equivalent of a three-day horse trial.

Others in the cast struggle with that – notably Chloe Sevigny, who plays Alicia Johnson, Lady Susan’s only confidante. Alicia is a London adventuress with an empty marriage to the well-heeled but insufferable Mr Johnson (Stephen Fry). Sevigny hasn’t the training for this kind of dialogue, but she’s one of Stillman’s favourites. His greater discovery in casting is Tom Bennett, who plays the rich but moronic Sir James Martin, a man so dumb he doesn’t know what fresh peas are. Bennett almost steals the movie in a largely invented character who’s as sweet as he is thick. Lady Susan sees only husband material for her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark), who’s neither as stupid as her mother believes, nor as venal as she herself.

Stillman’s films are all comedies of manners and in some way period pieces. Metropolitan was about his upper-class Manhattan college set in the mid-1980’s; The Last Days of Disco continued with the same bourgeoisie into the excesses of Studio 54, casting Beckinsale and Sevigny in their first film for Stillman.

Love & Friendship (borrowing the title but nothing else from a later collection of  Jane Austen’s short pieces) takes us into an equivalent world of privilege about two centuries earlier. The houses and rich costuming may have changed, but not the fundamental nature of people. Stillman is American, rather than British, so there might be a little less reverence, but he is an American Brahman. His father John Sterling Stillman was a Democrat politician who worked for Kennedy. John Whitney ‘Whit’ Stillman is Harvard-educated, a novelist as well as a director. 

He loves the pomp, the finery, the formality of this period in English upper class life, but he loves the humour and sting of Jane Austen’s youthful derision even more.  And he recognises the modernity in Lady Susan’s character – her waspish tongue and unscrupulousness, her delight in operating like a criminal within polite social constraints. She would be a feminist, except such a term is too limiting. She’s more like a wrecking ball, a master of manipulation, sexual and otherwise, a kind of female Puck. She doesn’t just want her cake; she wants everyone else’s too.