Most every inhabitant of the planet has either read one of her novels or seen a film adaptation of a Jane Austen novel. So it is a rare delight to find out that one of her largely unknown and first written novellas was being adapted into a film by director Wilt Stillman (Last Days of Disco, Damsels in Distress). On top of that he would reunite with two of his Last Days of Disco actresses in Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny. Intrigue and interest mounted for me.
As usual the first half of 2016 has been less than stellar in regards to quality films. Really up until the end of the summer and the beginning of Oscar season all you get is crass comedies, brainless action films and other summer diversions. Rare is it that you get a period piece being released in the middle of summer.
After a run of subpar films or action flicks like the Underworld series, Van Helsing and the remake of Total Recall, British actress Kate Beckinsale is back in a genre that I feel suits her well. The corseted period piece is where this English rose is most at home. There she gets to use her looks, fantastic accent/voice and ability with tricky dialogue best. She is also very comfortable with Jane Austen material as she starred in Emma as a young actress. It is around twenty years later and she demonstrates no rustiness with the dialogue or pacing of a Jane Austen film. Granted, though, this is a rather different Austen material.
It is presumed that Jane Austen wrote the Lady Susan novella when she was just a teenager. Let me tell you there is no doe eyedness or naiveté to be found here. Wickedness, manipulation, lies, deception, and even sexiness abound. Even for modern audiences this will be a little shocking and titillating.
Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) is in a tight spot in that her husband has died and she has no income of her own. It is time for her to use her intellect and beauty to snare another husband. Of course, one with money. And at the same time set up her young daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark – Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Madame Bovary – 2014), with a wealthy husband. Lady Susan is attempting to get all her ducks in a row. This might prove a little tricky despite her beauty as her reputation as a scoundrel precedes her.
After causing trouble at the Manwaring residence between Lord (Lochlann O’Mearain – King Arthur) and Lady (Jenn Murray – Brooklyn, Testament of Youth) Manwaring due to her “attention” to Lord Manwaring, Lady Susan is forced to move on to her brother-in-law’s, Charles Vernon (Justin Edwards – Thor: The Dark World, The Duchess). This is much to the chagrin of his wife, Catherine (Emma Greenwell – from television’s Shameless) and her brother Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel – Fury, The Twilight Sage: Eclipse). Reginald knows about Lady Susan’s reputation and is sure he won’t be fooled by her. Woefully, for Reginald, he is not match for the wiles of this woman. Will she actually get away with all this deceit and manipulation? Stay tuned!
Soon Reginald is under the spell of Lady Susan and she has arranged for the wealthy Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett – Shadow Dancer) to propose to Frederica. Everything seems to be unfolding as Lady Susan has hoped and as she and her one friend, American Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny – American Psycho, Boys Don’t Cry), have plotted.
Stillman is all about making the material less stuffy and giving Beckinsale plenty of scenery to chew on – in a very subtle and soft spoken way. The cinematography and costumes are stunning. He renders this despicable woman likeable due to all the playfulness he has instilled in the story and dialogue. Lady Susan is vicious, but because she does everything in a polite tone and with a smile she gets away with it and wins us over.