Dir Whit Stillman, with Kate Beckinsale
It must be almost 40 years since I read Lady Susan, and I recall it as unlike the usual Jane Austen novel in that the heroine is an utterly beguiling nasty piece of work. Like Don Giovanni, she charms, bewitches and deceives. She’s also the most interesting and entertaining character in the book.
So I enjoyed this film. I no longer expect films of novels to be faithful to their source – certainly not in tone and often not in plot either – so this one surprised by cleverly handling at times the tricky technical aspect of adapting the epistolary form. The title cards to introduce the characters, for example, or the on-screen words as a letter is read. And the whole film looked lovely – the costumes, the houses, the gardens, the coiffures, the composition of the scenes. One defect was that sometimes the words were gabbled (or is that just my hearing?), which is important when the story is subservient to the words and wit. I sometimes wonder if film-makers are so familiar with the screenplay that they do not think about their audience who watch and hear it for the first – and often only – time.
And – just like the novel – Lady Susan was captivating and made the good characters look tame, uninteresting, stupid or spiteful.
There were – as there often are in costume dramas today – a few modern concerns shoe-horned into the script, so that we do not skate over the unpleasant question of what a penniless girl can do instead of marrying a rich blockhead. This was done more subtly and thoughtfully than I’ve seen it done elsewhere.