A witty and colourful Austen comedy

When Whit Stillman read Austen’s Lady Susan, he described its epistolary form as “flawed,” and said he saw “another story there.” Borrowing the name of another early Austen work, Love and Friendship, he went ahead and rewrote Susan as a screenplay.

The resulting film certainly feels complete, even Austenian. In fact, it’s self-consciously so. Whimsical title cards for each character appear throughout the first few minutes, detailing relations and joking at the characters’ expense. At other times, letters and poems read aloud are accompanied by old-fashioned script floating onscreen.

These gimmicks fortunately don’t ruin the immersion. Yes, at first the late 18th century seems altogether too quiet, and yes, at first people seem stiff delivering lines of elaborate diction. But through excellent sets, costumes and period music, one eventually feels acclimated.

There are many characters, but you only need to keep track of a handful. Lady Susan is a widow low on cash visiting various relatives’ estates, dragging along the 18-year-old Frederica and barely disguising the fact that she views her daughter as a burden. She is determined to find profitable husbands for both herself and her daughter, but she has a well-deserved reputation for leading female friends astray and – her special talent – manipulating men, including the kind but gullible Reginald, the unfaithfully married Mr. Manwaring, and (Susan’s project for her daughter) the clueless James Martin. People are warned to steer clear of her.

But Susan sees life as a hand to be played strategically, and believes, as she tells her protégée Mrs. Johnson, “We hold the trumps.” She is adept at regaining the confidence of the young and naïve, turning even her offences into occasions for others to feel guilty for having suspected her.

Key in her arsenal for compelling her daughter to accept the courtship of the insufferable James is the commandment “Honour thy father and mother.” Poor Frederica is torn concerning this duty; her mother unabashedly explains that James’ fortune trumps a lack of love. When Frederica begs Reginald to speak to her mother, Susan feigns outrage, saying that those who love her “would assume one has unanswerable motives for all one does.” But of course unquestioning obedience is something we owe only to God. Even parents are human, and Frederica has good grounds for hoping that she can second-guess her mother without dishonouring her.

Not that Susan herself seems bound by the commandments, at least not the ones about adultery and false witness. Her worldview is best hinted at by a hilarious mistake on the part of James when he refers to the “Twelve Commandments.” Informed that there are only ten, he says, “Really! Well, then, which two to leave out?” He settles on dispensing with all the “Thou shalt not” ones since they concern things one “wouldn’t do anyway because they’re wrong.” But this reduces God’s commandments to common sense, to be followed or discarded according to our conscience – or, in Lady Susan’s case, convenience.

Susan comments at one point that “mortality is the hardest card” we’ve been dealt – only for Reginald to rebut that as Christians, we have little to fear. But Susan has no use for grace; she’s an antihero who gets ahead by cunning.

If Susan has a saving grace, it’s in representing a female perspective at a time when society was one of the few diversions for a woman, and evading unhappy marriages a constant trial. If we only knew “the degree of ridiculous manhood most young women without a fortune have to endure,” quips Susan, we would be more forgiving of James’ fault – mere innocent stupidity!

But Austen, though a Christian, was not a high-handed moralist. Things turn out happily for everyone in the end; no downfalls follow from misdeeds. Less refreshing is the deus ex machina that suddenly weds the two young folk at the end, a development only hinted at in Austen’s text.

Never mind – this is, after all, one of Austen’s lighter works, and shouldn’t be taken too seriously. If you’ve come to enjoy the scenery, the dialogue and the intrigue, you can hardly be disappointed. Whatever Stillman has done to get the story here, he’s done so while preserving Austen’s wit and the colour of her world.

  • Luke Sawczak is a freelance writer, editor, translator and recent graduate of the University of Toronto, where he edited the Mississauga campus’ student newspaper. His interests include music, photography, programming and hiking.

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