Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) plots to marry her ill-favoured daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) to wealthy idiot Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett). Catherine Vernon (Emma Greenwell), her kindly sister-in-law, tries to resist the formidable, amoral Susan’s schemes.
Writer-director Whit Stillman’s slim filmography has so far narrow-focused on articulate, educated, slightly useless near-contemporary Americans moping about relationships while arguing wittily about everything else. This adaptation of Jane Austen’s novella Lady Susan – written when she was 19 and not published in her lifetime – is an inspired venture into costume drama, revealing how surprisingly close a match the American filmmaker is for the English novelist. Austen’s privileged schemers and neurotics might be the ancestors of the ‘urban haute bourgeoisie’ of Stillman’s Metropolitan or Damsels In Distress.
High society comedy-romance is only bearable if real viciousness is stirred in.
Just as Clueless translated Austen into teen movie mode, this superimposes Stillman onto the 18th century. An intricate plot is peppered with laugh-out-loud cynical throwaways and a degree of suspense as the wicked, self-involved, peculiarly admirable antiheroine tries to get her way. High society comedy-romance is only bearable if real viciousness is stirred into the mix of posh accents, lovely costumes and Great British character acting.
As Susan and her American sidekick Alicia Johnson – perpetually in terror that a disapproving spoilsport husband (Stephen Fry – "too old to control, too young to die") will ship her off to New England – Stillman gets super turns from Last Days Of Disco veterans Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny. After a long sojourn in leather vampire catsuits, Beckinsale acts up an awards-worthy storm as the amusingly horrid Susan ("these fees are much too high to even think of paying", she sneers at a presented bill).
The supporting cast is full of funny turns – Tom Bennett steals all his scenes as the monumentally dim Sir James. Unlike others who essay comedies about the terminally privileged (ie: most people who make Austensploitation pictures), Stillman notices the ignored folks who make this well-dressed faffing about in great houses possible – whenever anyone arrives anywhere, servants struggle in the background with heavy luggage.
The funniest, most deliciously venomous Jane Austen movie ever made, and conclusive proof that, a) Kate Beckinsale has been seriously undervalued by the movies and, b) Whit Stillman is a major, distinctive talent.