Jane Austen has been treated well and often by Hollywood, but – with the exception of the recently humorous but underwhelming Pride and Prejudice and Zombies – she has been treated with a reverence which also brings with it a certain torpidity. How often have we seen that same dour, tortured Mr. Darcy; the loyal, suffering Elinor Dashwood; or the quick-witted but headstrong Elizabeth Bennet? Don’t get me wrong. I love them all, but their portrayals tend to be so bleeding earnest, and of the same stripe, that it begins to feel very rote.
Whit Stillman has written and directed three modern Austenian pictures- Metropolitan (essentially, Mansfield Park), Barcelona, and The Last Days of Disco. When he gets his hands on an actual Austen short story, it is no surprise that Stillman shakes it all up with an original and witheringly funny adaptation. Rather than dally with dialogue establishing the Austen archetype – handsome rogue, lovestruck hysterical wife, scheming social climber, etc . . . – he gives us the actors in poses, drawing upon the audiences’ presumed familiarity with Austen, so as to get the ball rolling more quickly.
And in the hands of the most vicious and hilarious of all Austen protagonists, Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale), what a ball it is. An elegant bloodsucker, Lady Vernon flits from household to household, leaving each in tumult as she wheedles her way into the most advantageous social position she can find. Her dexterity when she encounters obstacle is noteworthy and her aplomb when thwarted is near winning. In Beckinsale’s hands, Austen’s wit crackles, and the repartee is fast and furious. I won’t ruin any of the fun, save to offer my favorite line from the film: “Americans really have shown themselves to be a nation of ingrates, only by having children can we begin to understand such dynamic.”
Austen’s work always delivers us a fop, a fool, or both, but Beckinsale is almost upstaged by Tom Bennett who plays the utterly unflappable, cheery, and utterly clueless James Martin, one of Lady Vernon’s many targets. I laughed out loud in all of his scenes.
One of my top five for the year thus far.