Whit Stillman’s an interesting filmmaker. He made three films from 1990 to 1998 (Metropolitan, Barcelona, The Last Days of Disco) that formed a loose thematic trilogy and were incredibly acclaimed. He then didn’t make another film until 2011, a gap of some thirteen years. This is his second film since his return from exile. In this film, he leads a solid ensemble in an adaptation of a never before adapted Jane Austen work, Lady Susan, a novella Austen never submitted for publication during her lifetime. Kate Beckinsale plays the title character, a scheming widow who is out to get her daughter married to a rich guy & herself married to a rich guy and she’s not at all concerned with the havoc she wreaks in the process. It’s interesting to see a character that is very much an Austen character but who is also very different. If you’re one of those people who finds Emma unlikable, steer clear of the good Lady Susan; Emma is the closest thing we’ve had before to an anti-heroine in an Austen book and she causes problems because of ignorance, not malice. But Lady Susan can be malicious, cutting, controlling, manipulative, deceptive and quite cruel really. Beckinsale is marvelous in the part and, though I’m not a pig, it really must be said: at forty-two, she’s more gorgeous than she’s ever been in my opinion, almost unbearably so really. It feels like maybe her career to this point hasn’t really given her an opportunity to be very good, but she has a surprising gift for nimble verbal comedy and for very precise expressive comedy. The character, ultimately, is what lets both her and the film down. By the end of the film, I was simply tired of Lady Susan; the character is one note from start to finish and she ultimately becomes really quite predictable. She’s always going to do and say what benefits her without any care for the effect it has on anyone else; that’s how the film starts, she never changes, and that’s how it ends. There’s a moment toward the end of the film where I briefly perked up because it appeared that she might have done something selfless for once, but, no, it turns out not. I was aching for some kind of ambiguity to the character by the time the film was over, but there’s none to be found.
That’s too bad because the script is certainly witty in a very Austen manner and the rest of the cast is quite good. Chloe Sevigny is typically delightful as an equally amoral American friend of Lady Susan’s. Morfydd Clark is brilliant as Lady Susan’s whipped puppy of a daughter. But the show is very nearly stolen away from even Beckinsale by Tom Bennett as Sir James Martin, a typical Austen buffoon in the vein of Mr. Collins from P&P. Bennett’s performance is a comedic masterpiece, awkward, silly and hilarious. He’s unfortunately not in the film very often, but when he’s on screen, the movie really flares to life. It’s too bad then that the film does have the flaws that it has. With a slightly more ambiguous main character and, it must be said, some sort of a satisfying ending (which this film certainly doesn’t have), this film might have joined the upper echelons of Austen adaptations. As it is, it has to be happy a bit farther down on the ladder. 3 stars.
tl;dr – a cardboard cutout of a main character detracts from a fine ensemble and a script that’s as witty as it is aimless; not among the best Austen adaptations, but it has pleasures. 3 stars.