Whit Stillman on Love & Friendship, his postmodern love letter to Jane Austen

Austen’s work has already been a launch-pad for literary spin-offs, but Stillman's film – and accompanying novel – do something intriguingly new.

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When a director associated with the modern world enters the realm of period drama, there can be an electrifying jolt – think of Martin Scorsese and The Age of Innocence, Mike Leigh and Topsy-Turvy, or Andrea ­Arnold and Wuthering Heights. If that isn’t the case with Love & Friendship, Whit Stillman’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s epistolary novella Lady Susan, that is only because this director’s characters have always conversed as though they were in an arch 19th-century comedy of manners, irrespective of whether the setting was, say, upper-class 1980s ­Manhattan during the debutante ball season (his 1990 debut, Metropolitan) or a modern college campus (Damsels in Distress).

His films age well because they aren’t beholden to fads or trends. Cameron Crowe’s comedy Singles, set in the Seattle music scene that produced Nirvana and Pearl Jam, felt modern when it was released in 1992. Now it is the grunge rockers who resemble museum exhibits, while the young fogeys of Metropolitan look timeless.

Stillman’s characters are plagued, as those in Austen are, by matters of etiquette, class, honour and integrity. Near the end of his sharpest and sweetest film, The Last Days of Disco, there is a brief debate about Polonius’s advice (“To thine own self be true”) in Hamlet. “What if thine own self is not so good?” asks a disillusioned former nightclub employee. “What if it’s pretty bad? Would it be better in that case not to be true to thine own self?”

In Love & Friendship, it’s a predicament that applies to Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale), a widow who descends on the household of her brother-in-law, Charles (Justin Edwards), and his wife, Catherine (Emma Greenwell), after leaving the home of her previous host in disgrace. This is a woman whose skill at wreaking havoc is surpassed only by her ability to remain oblivious to the damage she leaves in her wake.

She is on the lookout for two husbands, one each for her and her daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark). The girl has run away from school and is resisting her mother’s attempts to pair her off with the wealthy but buffoonish Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett). An unexpected attraction develops between Lady Susan and Catherine’s brother, Reginald (Xavier Samuel), who is ten years her junior. Learning of this, the boy’s father (James Fleet) implores his son to sever his attachment to this woman described by Catherine as a diabolical genius.

In the face of this disparagement, something magical happens to our perception of Lady Susan: she begins to emerge as the only person here willing to defy social convention. Despair blights those around her, notably her American friend Alicia (Chloë Sevigny), who is saddled with the bumptious and disagreeable Mr Johnson (Stephen Fry) as a husband. Lady Susan, on the other hand, refuses unhappiness. She simply won’t brook it any more than she will tolerate a man approaching her unsolicited in the street (she despatches that innocuous fellow with the threat of a whipping).

Relish is too feeble a word for what Beckinsale brings to the part. Her countenance rarely wavers – she can lend the slightest smile or tilt of the head an element of the tactical and turns apparent blandishments (“astonishing”, “charming”) into conversational daggers. It is this consistency that breaks down our initial impression of her. Lady Susan’s audacity starts out looking comically poisonous but ends up somewhere close to heroic. Stillman’s directing and editing style is brisk, never allowing an actor to dwell on a line, so that we are sometimes lagging a few moments behind the joke. This suits Beckinsale fine. Just as Lady Susan relies on her schemes nearing completion before anyone realises she was scheming in the first place, so Beckinsale has rattled off her put-downs and epigrams almost before our ears can believe what they have heard. The effect is a kind of aftershock.

Austen’s work has already been a launch-pad for literary spin-offs including Seth Grahame Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (which dragged her characters into horror) or P D James’s Death Comes to Pemberley (a murder mystery), and it would not be far-fetched to imagine a series of legal thrillers showcasing Lady Susan (The Not-So-Good Wife?). She does, after all, display a barrister’s facility for manipulating emphasis to acquire the desired verdict. “Facts are horrid things,” she sighs after deflecting successfully a wholly justified assault on her name.

Stillman has already produced a literary work based on Love & Friendship: a novel of the film of the novella. It is important to distinguish this from the tie-in novelisations that were both popular and disparaged in the 1970s and 1980s. (In Manhattan, Woody Allen calls that sub-literary phenomenon “truly moronic”.) One bonus of the novelisation was that it provided underage viewers with tangential access to contraband movies: too young to see the films, I cherished my paperback copies of Alien and Damien: Omen II. But the form fell into the category of marketing rather than literature. So Love & Friendship isn’t a novelisation, but nor is it a screenplay, despite containing much of the dialogue from the film. Instead, it retells the action of the picture from the vantage point of a character who isn’t even in it.

Explaining the conceit of the work requires a spoiler alert: Stillman writes in the guise of Rufus Martin-Colonna de Cesari-Rocca, who hopes that his book will rehabilitate the reputation of Lady Susan – his aunt by marriage to his uncle, Sir James Martin. Rufus’s opinion is that both were unfairly impugned by Austen, to whom he refers dismissively as “the spinster Authoress”. He goes about the business of discrediting her account of proceedings, trying (and failing) to argue that Lady Susan was behaving altruistically or that Sir James’s inane jibber-jabber about the “twelve” commandments or the miracle of peas was knowingly comic rather than imbecilic.

Stillman’s book also includes the original Lady Susan, which is annotated in mounting anger by Rufus and published alongside his scribblings in “the same way a physician might seek to heal a wound by expelling pus”.

To anyone wondering how Rufus can describe events and dialogue that he could not have witnessed, he offers the testimony of his mother, who tells him: “Your ability to exactly imagine former scenes and past times, despite not having been present yourself, is nearly indecent.” He believes himself omniscient. He is, in reality, a fool.

Stillman had a contract to write the book before he even knew whether the film would be made. “For a long time, I didn’t have a film but I had a script,” he tells me on the phone from his home in Paris. “People really enjoyed reading it – most scripts aren’t a good reading experience – so I thought it might also work as a novel.” A tweet on the subject attracted the attention of the publishers Little, Brown and soon Stillman had, as he puts it, “this albatross of the novel round my neck”.

It was only during shooting that the form of the book and the narrator’s identity suggested themselves. “The real revelation in the film was Tom Bennett’s performance as Sir James. It gave me the idea of this parallel­ism – Jane Austen’s stuffy and rather dim literary nephew [James Edward Austen-Leigh] had done a memoir of his aunt, so I invented a stuffy and rather dim nephew for Sir James who would write a memoir of his aunt.”

Stillman has been here before. His novel The Last Days of Disco, With Cocktails at Petrossian Afterward, published in 2000, two years after the release of the film with which it shares half of its title, is no less ingenious in its construction. In that instance, we are led to believe that Jimmy Steinway, a supporting character from the movie, has been commissioned by the film’s production company to write the real version of the events fictionalised on-screen.

Jimmy has seen The Last Days of Disco and we hear his opinion of the casting choices, the reviews it received and the extent to which it deviated from real life. He begins his account before the action shown in the film, then incorporates the events of the movie, adding new interpretations, before filling us in on what happened to the characters after the end credits rolled. It’s a technique redolent both of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and David Thomson’s novel Suspects, which imagines interconnected biographies for movie characters (including Noah Cross in Chinatown, Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard and Elliott in ET) that spill over the sides of the films in which they first appeared.

In both cases, Stillman’s novels were written after their corresponding films were finished. Rather than feeling exhausted with the material, he didn’t want to let it go. “The worst thing is the blank page at the start. Then the horrible things written on the blank page. Then deciding whether or not to throw out those horrible things: lame scenes, lame characters, bad ideas. Once you’ve done the film, you’re beyond that stage. The world and the characters are all worked out and it’s a pleasure to stay with them. You’re into the long green. Every­thing is pay dirt.”

Love & Friendship is released on 27 May; the book is published by Little, Brown

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad