As a proto-feminist (long before the term was ever coined), Jane Austen will always remain relevant. Her Pride And Prejudice and Emma are unlikely to ever be out of print. This movie, adapted for the screen by American writer/director Whit Stillman, is based on a lesser known novella, Lady Susan. Portrayed with precision and unflappable calm by Kate Beckinsale, the eponymous heroine of the story (if we can call her that, so duplicitous is she), the widowed Susan Vernon, has made a mission of seeing to it that her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) makes a match that will ensure her future happiness, wealth and security. To do this, she must outwit and manipulate the gentlemen with whom she cavorts in London and rural Kent.
There is a lot of information to be absorbed in the first five minutes as Stillman introduces us, in a bookish, almost stilted manner, to the players who will be caught in Lady Susan’s web. There are the Manwarings and the DeCourcys, of whom young Reginald (Australian Xavier Samuel) will be her target, and a coterie of gentry, including the gibbering idiot, Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), the doughty butler Wilson (Conor Lambert), and Lady Susan’s American confidante, Alicia Johnson (Chloë Sevigny, adorable as ever). All of the characters are so finely drawn and the dialogue, as you’d expect, razor sharp (you actually need to listen closely) and wry. Art direction is a feast for the eye – although my companion informed me that the fabulous costumes were not all strictly in period, ranging between Restoration and Regency, which is neither here nor there for a mungo like me – and the edit never lets the narrative become bogged down in wordiness. Lady Susan’s, and true love’s, ultimate triumph is only slightly diminished by the partner she chooses for herself, but in the back of your mind you understand that she knows exactly what she’s doing and that all will end well for her. Great stuff – if only we could get more of it.