This appropriately titled satire on social mores and relations is Whit Stillman’s tribute to Jane Austen upon whose early work, Lady Susan, this film is based. His affection for Austen is clear in the references his characters make to Austen in his other films, such as Metropolitan.
The film is a polished romp through 18th century mores with all the ingredients of character and environment which makes such themes endlessly attractive. First, all the characters are upper middle class and wealthy (though the main protagonist has no visible means of support), whose default position is to have more fascinating, glamorous lives than the rest of society. Second, their clothes are sumptuous and their houses are grand and delicious, guaranteed to bring pleasure to the palette of anyone who has tasted, even for a moment, the delights of interior design or fashion. This is a very syllabub of a satire. Third, the dramatics personae (engagingly introduced one by one at the start of the film) are instantly recognisable: the conniving widow with a scandalous reputation for flirtation, (Lady Susan Vernon); Mr.Nice But Dim, (Sir James,) a knight of the realm whose function is to unquestioningly supply financial support and marriage to whichever lady requires him so to do; Mr.Rich And Charming (Lord Manwaring), the adulterer who has married a plain, complaining, jealous wife, (shame!); Mr. RIch And Solid But Acquiescent (Lady Susan’s brother-in-law, Mr.Vernon); Mr.Sceptical But Naive, a handsome youth, (Richard de Courcy); and Miss Cruelly Treated And Misunderstood – the oppressed, timid but beautiful daughter of the widow (Federica); Mrs Sense And Sensibility, (Mrs Vernon), the keen observer who is deceived by nothing but struggles to influence events and is no doubt most closely identified with Austen herself. There are others, but you can discover them for yourselves.
Though this is the earliest of Austen’s novels, the way events unfold is achieved with consummate skill and because she chose to compose the novel in the form of letters exchanged by her characters, they reveal themselves and their motives with less circumspection than if they were depicted in social settings. They appear less nuanced, but the satire bites more deeply. One feels some concern of course for the position of women at the time whose (generally) only choice of an income was to marry, but Kate Beckinsale plays Lady Susan with such glossy accomplishment and relish that one can’t imagine she would prefer any occupation more thoroughly than the one for which she finds herself most talented.
All the performances are good, but one stands out, that of Tom Bennett who plays the ‘nice but dim’ Sir James. He makes this part his own, portraying a person of ludicrous but well meaning idiocy with such élan that it inspires a certain poignancy along with the hilarity.
This is a thoroughly diverting and enjoyable film, superbly acted and produced and beautifully written by Stillman in a style which takes Austen’s satirical gift and burnishes it to a high sheen.