“Love & Friendship” & Gender Politics: The New Film is a Fresh Take on Jane Austen

Jane Austen’s ubiquity in our popular culture can tire even zealous Austen fans. Austen’s intelligent and bold characters, navigating 18th and 19th century romance and nobility, have compelled international readers for over 200 years. We have thanked her by releasing countless adaptations and pastiches based on her work, reimagining her characters as everything from Valley Girls to flesh-eating zombies. But your Austen exhaustion shouldn’t allow you to miss Whit Stillman’s entirely delightful and fresh film adaptation, Love & Friendship.

Stillman’s Love & Friendship, produced by Amazon Studios and out in limited release in theaters May 13, is adapted from Austen’s Lady Susan, a quippy, posthumously published epistolary novella about the recently widowed Lady Susan Vernon. When we first encounter Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale), she is hastily leaving the Langford estate. It is hinted (more explicitly in the novel) that she has had some sort of tryst with the married Lord Manwaring, the “divinely attractive man” who owns the estate. Though she follows social expectations and leaves Langford, the drama Lady Susan creates is of little consequence to her. When she later hears of Lady Manwaring’s jealousy, she replies, “If she were going to be jealous, she should not have married such a charming man.”

Since the novel was originally formatted in letters, the film’s key plot points are often delivered through the passing of a letter from one character to another. This works remarkably well for the movie, allowing us to see early on how Lady Susan’s reputation precedes her. The stark differences between what Lady Susan tells a young suitor, Reginald (Xavier Samuel), and what she details in letters to her confidant, Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny), illustrate Lady Susan’s scheming character. Passages that Austen wrote in letter form also make for excellent dialogue. This means some characters speak their lengthy diatribes instead of writing them, and this only further emphasizes these characters’—Lady Susan’s, in particular—exaggerated, all-eyes-on-me self-regard.

Beckinsale brilliantly balances the wit, charm, and conniving spirit that give Lady Susan her unfavorable reputation. Lady Susan is the kind of woman who is so infatuated with her own intelligence that she keeps repeating a reference to the Bible even though no one understands it. And her interest in young Reginald is purely monetary, though her flirtations convince him otherwise. “She has an uncanny understanding of men’s natures,” says Catherine, Lady Susan’s sister-in-law (Emma Greenwell), as if Lady Susan were some kind of 18th century pick-up artist.

Kate Beckinsale, Chloë Sevigny, and numerous giant hats star in Love and Friendship.

Lady Susan’s plotting is just an exaggerated example of a subtle subversion we see from the other women in the film. Throughout the film, Alicia Johnson bemoans her own husband’s health. “Dreadful news,” Alicia says when passing along word that her husband’s illness has passed without killing him. These women marry these men to establish and support their own livelihoods. The death of a husband would mean both wealth and independence, which are otherwise unattainable for unwed women of this period. “Let Mr. Johnson’s next gouty attack end more favorably,” Lady Susan says.

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Even Catherine, whose marriage is portrayed as loving and pure and good, is seen manipulating her husband ever-so-slightly in one scene. To get to London, conspiring with her family against Reginald and Lady Susan’s courtship, Catherine plots to appeal to her husband’s self-importance. “Pressing business in London?” she says to him, and he agrees with a shrug. In that moment, it is clear that though the men hold the money, the women control the households. This is also apparent in the character of Lord Manwaring—the married object of Lady Susan’s affections—who doesn’t speak once throughout the entire film. His silence compared to his wife’s and Lady Susan’s loquacity is yet another indication of who holds the social capital.

The most explicit mention of any sort of gender politics comes from a hapless and oblivious Sir James, as he explains to Alicia the differences between men and women when it comes to infidelity. “A husband straying is biology,” he says, a mere product of man’s inability to control his urges, but a woman acting the same would be uncouth and ridiculous. He says this moments after delivering the news that he and his new bride are expecting a child, whom he falsely believes is his own even though mere days have passed since he and his wife were wed. In his ignorance, we know we’re meant to laugh at him, not with him.

In Love & Friendship, we’re given a unique perspective of the men and women within Regency-era relationships. The film is a joy to watch, partially due to the elaborate period costumes and the sweeping shots of the gorgeous estates. But the real pleasure here is in the complicated portrayal of the women of this time period and the various ways they navigate and subvert the gendered expectations put upon them by society.

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by Jess Kibler
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Jess Kibler is a Portland-based writer, editor, and sad-song collector.

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