We like to think of them as comedies of manners, but Jane Austen’s novels boil down to one thing: money. It’s what keeps Darcy and Elizabeth apart for much of Pride and Prejudice, what allows Emma and Mr. Knightley to be together in Emma, and it drives the entire narrative arc of Sense and Sensibility.
Now it’s clear that Austen was preoccupied with the stuff from the very beginning of her career. Love & Friendship is based on her early short novel Lady Susan, about Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) a world-class schemer with the greatest motivation of all: she’s broke.
Kicked out of one fine house after flirting a tad too openly with the master of the manor, Susan and her guileless daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark), flee to the home of her in-laws, the Vernons. The plan is to hook her daughter up with a suitable match, but is Susan to be blamed for setting her own cap at the very rich, very respectable, very young Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel)? Actually, yes. Susan’s quite the magnet for salacious gossip, nearly all of it true.
If Love & Friendship seems more cutting than Austen’s usual fare, thank director Whit Stillman. He brings the knives into the storytelling and the editing room, treating Austen like other filmmakers treat Shakespeare: reverentially, certainly, but also as a canvas for creativity. He lets Beckinsale really sink into Susan’s slither, gives Chloë Sevigny plenty of room to pout as Susan’s dear American friend, Alicia Johnson, and in general allows everyone to look as bad as they truly are.
But while catching up the characters in their folly, Stillman makes a larger point that it’s really society’s fault. When women are judged for their marriageability, doomed to end up penniless spinsters unless they hook a rich bachelor, a conniver like Susan is an inevitable result. In other words, this one’s for the golddiggers.