Film adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels have become something of a cinematic staple over the last twenty years. Even those of us who were just a tad too young in the mid-nineties to care about (let alone understand) Colin Firth’s dramatic redefinition of Mr. Darcy as something of a nineteenth-century sex symbol can still look to that era of period-drama remakes as a crucial turning point in the Austenmania craze.
We’ve been given an impressive list since then—Ang Lee and Emma Thompson’s gorgeous screenplay Sense and Sensibility (1996), Joe Wright’s meditative interpretation of Pride & Prejudice (2005) with Keira Knightley and Matthew MacFadyen, and Adrian Shergold’s nuanced and unjustly underrated adaptation of Persuasion (2007). Though each of these films is more different than the last, they do share a common thread: on screen, they seek to marry the physical landscapes of the English countryside with the emotional landscapes of their protagonists, foregrounding this particular element of visual drama that Austen largely leaves off the page.
Love & Friendship is an entirely different animal from the films I named above: it is far less concerned with landscapes and drama than it is with presenting itself as the unapologetic comedy that it is. Adapted from Lady Susan (Austen’s lesser-known, unpublished novella), Love & Friendship is fast paced, irreverent, and as raucous as nineteenth-century upper-class England could reasonably tolerate.
Lady Susan (played by Kate Beckinsale) is a young widow to a wealthy older man, and “the most accomplished flirt in all of England.” Notorious for her beauty and witchlike effect on men—both married and single—Susan is a bit of a moral pariah, rather coldly accepted in society due largely to her status and not so much her perceived virtue. Smart and cunning, witty and judgmental, Susan charms her way through England, scheming to marry her daughter off to a rich man, and maybe even to score one herself if she feels like it.
Slapstick in the manner of much of Jane Austen’s early work, Love & Friendship takes her comedic voice to task. The film is dialogue-heavy—one-liner after one-liner—but manages its flippancy with aplomb and carefully timed jump cuts. The screenwriting is excellent, and the casting superb, and while it still gives its audience what it wants in terms of sweeping grandeur and an elaborate wardrobe, the film is first and foremost a comedy that’s utterly at home with itself, and much like Lady Susan and Jane Austen, is largely unconcerned with whether or not you catch every joke the first time around.
This was, perhaps, my favorite aspect of the movie as a whole—while much of what is said presents itself as patently humorous, many of the best moments have the sort of off-tempo comedic timing in which the punch line hits several full seconds after the joke is made, and sometimes not until several scenes later. Its humor is generationally indifferent in this way, funny not only for its own time, but very well suited for modern audiences with somewhat more relaxed views on social etiquette. If shows like Arrested Development or The Office are your thing, then Love & Friendship is definitely for you.
Jane Austen is funny—a key element of her writing that Love & Friendship deliberately highlights. The adage is true: familiarity breeds contempt, and with a relative proliferation of film and TV adaptations out in the wild, it is all too easy to become somewhat desensitized to Austen’s voice. As far as the Western canon goes, she’s not unlike Shakespeare in this regard—one need not have read even a page of her writing in order to be able to quote her or identify elements of her work in pop culture. Whether or not this is the height to which all great writers aspire—to become so feverishly popular that the only time you’re remembered is when you’re taken for granted—is anyone’s guess.
The debate about Austen’s relevance shows no signs of dying any time soon, and may only die when the argument about whether or not women can be funny is long buried. The question of whether or not she’s overrated seems to miss the point: granted, she’s not for everyone, but she doesn’t really need to be. Her work finds new audiences nonetheless, and reveals new facets of her odd talent, the sort showcased by authors who are lucky enough to find a way to write for generations far removed from their own. Love & Friendship gives us this, and what a task that is.