WASHINGTON — Jane Austen novels are often adapted to film as romantic period dramas, from Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson in “Pride & Prejudice'” (1940) to Kate Winslet and Emma Thompson in “Sense & Sensibility” (1995).
But writer/director Whit Stillman, a D.C. native, is twisting the model with a delightful new comedy based on Austen’s lesser-known novella “Lady Susan.” The work was believed to have been written around 1794 but wasn’t posthumously published until 1871, half a century after her death in 1817.
“This is something she wrote at the time she was writing the first drafts of ‘Pride & Prejudice’ and ‘Sense & Sensibility,'” Stillman told WTOP. “This is actually the first adult piece she wrote. But I think it was so funny and amoral and scandalous that they really enjoyed it within their family, but I think she hesitated about publishing it because … she wanted her novels to have a sort of moral impetus.”
Set in 1790s England, it follows the widowed Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale), who visits her in-laws to escape scintillating gossip about her private life. Quickly, her mission becomes finding a suitable husband not only for herself, but also her debutante daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark).
The most likely suitor is the handsome but naive Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel), who has eyes for Lady Susan but is closer in age to Frederica. Another option is the well-off, but laughable dunce Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett). Bouncing opinions off a wise married couple (Stephen Fry and Chloë Sevigny), Lady Susan weaves a web of relationships as she flirts with the edge of polite society.
“We changed the title,” Stillman said. “She had used ‘Love & Friendship’ as the title for an earlier short story, but I’ve seen people before where they take a good title and put it on something with a weaker title. … [Jane Austen herself] started out with character names as her titles and then when she finished it, it became ‘Sense & Sensibility’ or ‘Pride & Prejudice’ or in this case ‘Love & Friendship.'”
“This is really funny Jane Austen,” Stillman said. “So if people like things like Oscar Wilde and Evelyn Waugh, this is that kind of British humor. … It’s like John Cleese, Monty Python walking into Jane Austen at times, although I think we respect the reality of the novel and Jane Austen fans like it.”
The humor is mostly of the “comedy of manners” variety, though there are a number of surprisingly laugh-out-loud moments. For the former, look no further than the opening credits, which introduce the characters with a wink-and-nod inside translucent ovals atop quirky, self-deprecating subtitles.
For the latter, get ready for the sidesplitting performance of charming character actor Tom Bennett, who portrays the type of giddy doofus that giggles at the sight of peas, calling them “little green balls,” and simply can’t believe there isn’t a prominent church or hill residing in a town named “Churchill.”
“It’s a pretty unusual film,” Stillman said. “It was shown as a surprise film in a film festival in Glasgow, Scotland, so people went in not knowing what film they were going to see. The comments we got on Twitter were from a lot of guys and women who don’t like period films … and they really loved it.”
It’s only fitting that Stillman’s idol is Preston Sturges, who delivered an unrivaled, meteoric streak of screwball comedies from 1940-1944: “The Great McGinty” (1940), “The Lady Eve” (1941), “Sullivan’s Travels” (1941), “The Palm Beach Story” (1942) and “The Miracle at Morgan’s Creek” (1944).
This sophisticated comic sensibility blends well with Stillman’s own background. Born at George Washington University Hospital in 1952, Stillman spent plenty of time studying society’s elites.
“There was a period when I was making films where all the leading actors in my films were born in the same hospital,” Stillman said. “What is it about Washington as a crossroads for pregnant women?”
Growing up in Georgetown, he also spent his childhood in New York state. His father, John Sterling Stillman, was in John F. Kennedy’s class at Harvard and later ran Kennedy’s campaign in New York state and served as his assistant secretary of commerce. He also worked for Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr.
“He worked for these Democratic Party royal families, the Roosevelts and the Kennedys,” Stillman said. “I shook hands with President Kennedy as Senator Kennedy in October of 1960. It was cool.”
Stillman almost followed in his father’s political footsteps before finding a more artistic calling.
“I did want to go into politics, but I was doing a college interview when I was 16 and I recited what I wanted to do, and it was actually just what my father wanted [me] to do,” Stillman said. “I realized I wanted to get into writing. I admired F. Scott Fitzgerald a lot, so I thought I wanted to be a novelist.”
In fact, Fitzgerald’s granddaughter was actually once a classmate of Stillman’s.
“We all had a crush on her,” he said. “She had those sad eyes that make 14-year-olds’ hearts break.”
Soon, his dream of becoming the next great American novelist evolved into scripted entertainment.
“I was working for the newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, and I was writing these musical comedies for the Hasty Pudding shows that never got made,” Stillman said. “I thought maybe [in] an audiovisual medium, I could make a mark. So I got into independent film through the Spanish film industry and made my first film ‘Metropolitan,’ which came out in 1990. … It was really a Cinderella story.”
That film followed a group of young upper-class Manhattanites whose social circle is shaken up by an unusual outsider. “Metropolitan” earned a Grand Jury Prize nomination at Sundance and earned Stillman an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay, losing to “Ghost” (1990).
“I had always hated the Oscars,” Stillman said. “If you’re a frustrated filmmaker, you hate seeing all of those people who are successful, and also in the old days, it was the last night before your taxes were due, so it was a doubly whammy. … But then when I went out, oh my gosh, it was fantastic.”
In fact, he sat behind the butt of host Billy Crystal’s jokes.
“I was sitting behind Dustin Hoffman and the celebrated talent agent Mike Ovitz, and Billy Crystal was the emcee that year and he was making Mike Ovitz jokes,” Stillman said. “I remember Dustin Hoffman was pretty funny. He held his hand and said, ‘The pain is receding, the pain is receding.'”
He next directed Mira Sorvino in the dramedy “Barcelona” (1994), which won Best Cinematography at the Independent Spirit Awards, before casting both Beckinsale and Sevigny as a pair of fresh-out-of-college Manhattan book editors in “The Last Days of Disco” (1998). The London Critics Circle named Beckinsale its Best Supporting Actress, tying with Minnie Driver (“Good Will Hunting”).
Now, after acclaimed roles in Kenneth Branagh’s “Much Ado About Nothing” (1993) and Martin Scorsese’s “The Aviator” (2004), as well as fan favorites like”Pearl Harbor” (2001) and “Serendipity” (2001), Beckinsale comes full circle to reunite with Sevigny under Stillman’s stellar direction.
In “Love & Friendship,” Sevigny isn’t given all that much to do, but is very funny in the brief moments she appears on screen next to Beckinsale, gossiping and plotting their next moves. No, this one belongs entirely to Beckinsale, who’s an absolute show stopper in every single scene she graces.
“I had seen her in some things she had done in Britain, such as ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ and the miniseries of Jane Austen’s ‘Emma,'” Stillman said. “She came into our offices where we were doing our production for ‘Last Days of Disco’ and she was so pretty. She was then about 23, but she seemed like a pretty teenager. … It’s exactly the role in the work because Jane Austen said she’s 35 but looks 25.”
In “Love & Friendship,” her timeless beauty and native British accent make her utterly convincing as the mature widow successfully wooing younger men. How could they not fall for her? Her display is a master class in seduction and manipulation, always one step ahead of her suitors — and the audience.
“Her father was a really well-loved comic actor in sitcoms in Britain,” Stillman said. “So she sort of inherited some of that natural ability to have the right timing. These are comic actors, so they’re not stand-up comedians. It’s not Will Ferrell who generates his own material. But they have the timing.”
More than just comedic timing, Beckinsale also used her experience to fine-tune the screenplay.
“She’s very smart. She went to Oxford. So she brings a lot of brainpower to it,” Stillman said. “She went over the script a lot. I had a too-long script … and she went over it with a fine-toothed comb. … I’d get all these comments from her iPhone about this scene and that scene, and it was very helpful.”
While Beckinsale helped provide notes on the script, cinematographer Richard Van Oosterhout helped Stillman visualize the compositions. Neither filmmaker particularly likes storyboarding, or even shot lists for that matter, but would rather get to the physical location and plan on the spot.
“I feel you get to the location and you figure it out right then,” Stillman said. “Particularly in this kind of film where we’re not building studio sets … we get to these actual locations that really look like what we’re filming and we really respect the location. They’re a big part in the beauty of the film.”
If there’s one fault in the script it’s that it ends abruptly. Beckinsale’s chess-match manipulations have been so calculated up until this point that we expect more of a revelation by the time we reach checkmate. Instead, the film wraps with a quick, tidy bow on an otherwise satisfying cinematic gift.
Perhaps this is because the cute subtitles introduce so many peripheral characters that it’s nearly impossible to give them all proper closure. Or, perhaps it’s simply a result of trying to adapt an unfinished story not published in the author’s lifetime. Either way, the filmmaker’s tone is so vibrant, so lush, so deliciously mischievous that it’s a good problem to have — it leaves us wanting more.
“There’s two good things about working with Jane Austen material. … One is it’s superb. … The other thing is that she’s no longer with us to object,” Stillman joked. “I’ve had other adaptations in which the living author kind of gets in the way of the process and pulls the chord on something that is not nearly finished yet. They get impatient … So these authors succeed in having their books never filmed.”
Austen may no longer be with us, but her style is still very much alive.
“It’s all the love plays that are going on,” Stillman said. “Some people are sincerely in love and some people are in love to get money. Frankly, that goes on to this very day. I’ve even seen in my own family some people whose interests could be mercenary. So the Jane Austen world continues.”
“Love & Friendship” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival before playing at Filmfest D.C. in April. It’s now playing at the AMC Shirlington 7, Landmark E Street Cinema, Angelika Film Center Mosaic, Landmark Bethesda Row and ArcLight Bethesda.