In “Following the Equator,” Mark Twain wrote of encountering a library from which books by Jane Austen were entirely absent. “Just that one omission alone would make a fairly good library out of a library that hadn’t a book in it,” he concluded. To a friend, he once elaborated with brutal excess: “Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shinbone.” (The UB Twain scholar Vic Doyno always put it this way: “he was a good HATER.”)
Twain, it seems, seldom passed up an opportunity to lob a jape Austen’s way. She was his literary Margaret Dumont.
That’s the Twain whom George Orwell called a “licensed jester” in America, a fellow who delighted rich and powerful males with after-dinner speeches delivered over brandy and cigars. Those, in other words, who weren’t exactly Jane Austen’s readership.
The funny thing about the new Jane Austen movie “Love & Friendship” is that it’s a Jane Austen film that could almost have been written and directed by a member in good standing of the Twain tribe. It could please those who might claim, as Twain did, that taking up an Austen book to read was like “a barkeeper entering the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Director Whit Stillman is having a fine old time in this adaptation of an early Austen novella called “Lady Susan.” Stillman is a good-humored jester all through the film. He’s front and center giggling to himself like a barkeeper in the Kingdom of Heaven. When the mood strikes, he has a good horse laugh just as he might, as Twain put it, at “ultra-good Presbyterians” as they filed “self-complacently along.”
You know that from the minute Stillman starts introducing the characters in his story with the kind of tongue-in-temple descriptions that are clear cut barbaric yawps at the aristocratic stereotypes of 18th century fiction.
But here’s the thing, the biggest joke of all. As Ang Lee and Emma Thompson first proved in 1995 with “Sense and Sensibility,” the Twain tribe of rude Austen-baiters couldn’t lay a glove on her when there was an attentively human and witty cinematic adaptation of one of her stories.
I must confess that what makes “Love & Friendship” as perversely entertaining as it is, is the moment when Tom Bennett arrives playing Sir James Martin, a wealthy twit so stupid and so silly that he thinks the Lord gave Moses 12 commandments. At dinner, we are entreated to Sir James discovering how pleasant it is to eat peas for the first time.
He is a spectacular ninny of a sort to which any farceur worth his salt could make much use. And Stillman does, with quite a bit more self-evident pleasure and crudity than Lee and Thompson would probably approve.
Sir James is one pole of this entertaining story. The other is Lady Susan, a widow with no “man and no money,” a shy teenage daughter and a truly spectacular gift for snobbery and social manipulation.
The major flirt in all of England, some characters call her early on. And that’s only a fraction of it. She has all the ability a woman might develop who has no means, a daughter to marry off profitably and sufficient lack of ethics to make her a drawing room conquistador.
When the biggest jerk in the British Isles is afoot, it doesn’t hurt to have his pawn moved around the board by the country’s supreme salon strategist.
To these people, America is, at best, exile. A fate worse than death is to have to leave London and sail across the sea to Hartford, Conn. (where Twain and his family lived for 17 years).
The social, marital and extramarital dance performed during the course of “Love & Friendship” is full of Lady Susan’s relatives, friends, frenemies, acquaintances and patsies. For those keeping score at home, love vs. friendship becomes a pretty funny contest – one with a punch line even Twain might have liked.
With all of that, the costuming is lavish and the film is obviously made in splendid locations reeking of 18th century high life. Stillman’s films are seldom known for their performances but I must admit, as Lady Susan, Kate Beckinsale is pretty smashing in this thing.
“Sense and Sensibility” it’s not. But then the director of that later gave us “The Incredible Hulk,” too. So it’s nothing that this thing comes to us from the fellow who once made “The Last Days of Disco.”
It’s eventually enjoyable in a way that even Twain might have liked on his second cigar and fifth brandy of the evening.
"Love and Friendship"
3 stars (out of four)
Starring: Kate Beckinsale, Chloe Sevigny, Xavier Samuel, Stephen Fry
Director: Whit Stillman
Running time: 92 minutes
Rating: PG for adult situations.
The Lowdown: Adaptation of Jane Austen novella about a manipulative widow.