Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 32 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 0; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 3.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
I the Lord test the mind and search the heart,
to give to all according to their ways, according to the fruit of their doings.
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also…
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink,[j] or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?
Matthew 6:19-21, 25
In this lesser Jane Austin work (Lady Susan), directed and adapted by Whit Stillman, it is Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) who is the kind of person at whom Jesus targets his words of warning. She is physically very lovely, but inside as morally ugly a female as one is likely to come across. She is the kind of schemer who would praise you with lavish words even as she is lifting your wallet or purse. Thus she is quite a different heroine from Austin’s pure-hearted Lizzie Bennett and Emma Woodhouse.
Recently widowed, Lady Susan sets out to impose herself upon the household of her in-laws, Mrs. Catherine and Charles Vernon (Emma Greenwell and Justin Edwards). Catherine understands her guest all too well, referring to her sister-in-law as “the serpent in Eden’s garden.” And so she is, setting her sight on Catherine’s handsome younger brother, Reginald De Courcy (Xavier Samuel). She tells her almost equally duplicitous American friend Mrs. Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny) that she plans to secure her financial future by marrying Reginald. Probably she would have succeeded by her charm in convincing the young man to disregard all the rumors about her many dalliances as just vicious rumors. However, she had not figured on her neglected daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) showing up unexpectedly. Never close to her unaffectionate mother, the girl had run away from the school to which she had been exiled. It soon becomes clear that Frederica also is drawn to Reginald, though for very different reasons.
To remove the threat to her plans, Lady Susan invites Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), whom she hopes to palm off on Frederica. The pompous man is as full of himself as is Lady Susan, but without her sophistication and intelligence. He makes all kinds of social faux pas without ever realizing it. I loved the scenes in which he expounds upon the difference between “Church Hill, two words, and Churchill, one word, referring to the name of the estate they are staying at. And when he tries to expound upon the Twelve Commandments and is corrected that there are just Ten, still not comprehending his mistake, he responds with something like, “I wonder what they did with the other two?” In a dinner table scene he looks at a plate of peas, an unfamiliar vegetable to him, and cries out, “What are these green round balls?”
I have not read the original, but in Stillman’s version Lady Susan’s expected redemption or come-uppance is either left out or left to an inevitable future for such a self-centered person. As a study of a conniving high society con artist, the film is a delight. Despite all of her faults, we cannot but like the unsavory character—much of this being due to Kate Beckinsale’s droll performance. Indeed, when you think of the social/economic powerlessness of women in the late 18th Century, one has to admire her for her use of her skills—much as we did equally self-centered Scarlett O’Hare in Gone With the Wind. Some of her bon mots are precious, such as, “facts are horrid things,” and her comment to her friend about the unsuitable husband who is “too old to be governable and too young to die.”
The film might be an adaptation of a minor Austin work, but it is immensely entertaining. Part of the humor and charm of the film is the director/writer’s reverting to a custom from movies back in the early 20th Century of showing each of the main characters with a pithy caption describing them. The filmmaker explores the character of a complicated and ambitious woman, leaving it up to us to draw our own conclusions about her.
This review with a set of discussion questions is in the June issue of VP.