(2016) Period Romance (Roadside Attractions/Amazon) Kate Beckinsale, Morfydd Clark, Tom Bennett, Jenn Murray, Lochlann O’Mearáin, Sophie Radermacher, Chloë Sevigny, Stephen Fry, Jordan Waller, Ross Mac Mahon, Frank Prendergast, Xavier Samuel, Emma Greenwell, Justin Edwards, Kelly Campbell, Jemma Redgrave. Directed by Whit Stillman
The role of women has evolved over the centuries, but it still has a long way to go. One woman who has helped it evolve is the author Jane Austen, who wrote about strong female heroines in a period when women were not just second class citizens, but third or even fourth class. It is something of a shame that Austen heroines are to this day still more of an exception than a rule.
Lady Susan (Beckinsale) is a widow with scarcely a penny to her name. In the Regency era, that is a dire situation indeed. Having married into the upper class, she is used to a certain lifestyle that she can no longer afford. Having a scandalous reputation as a temptress (one that has been well-earned to be sure) hasn’t helped her cause. With few options, she goes to her sister-in-law Catherine Vernon (Greenwell) and her good-natured husband Charles (Edwards) to stay with.
Things are tense between the two women, mainly because Susan had opposed the marriage and had done her best to quash it – unsuccessfully. Now the appearance of Susan’s daughter Frederica (Clark) has complicated matters. Susan has been trying to get Frederica married to the extremely wealthy, moderately handsome, sweet-natured but utterly dim Sir James Martin (Bennett) whom she doesn’t love and has been resisting. Susan herself has been courting the charms of Catherine’s younger brother Reginald (Samuel), much to the amusement of Susan’s American friend Mrs. Johnson (Sevigny).
However all of Lady Susan’s plots and schemes may come crashing down about her head. There are people who just plain don’t like her and disapprove of her. It will take all of her wits and intelligence to stay one step ahead of everyone else and succeed in making sure both she and her daughter are able to live in comfort and privilege.
Director Whit Stillman is one of those guys who is well-respected within the film community. He has some really terrific films to his credit, including Last Days of Disco and Metropolitan, both must-sees for any film buff. He seems tailor-made for the works of Jane Austen and true to expectations he nails it with his first foray into the grand dame’s work.
And that turns out to be the case. Stillman gets the essence of the language, making it flow without making it too incomprehensible to modern ears, which is often the case with Regency-era adaptations. He also knows how to bring the best in Beckinsale, who starred for him in Last Days of Disco. She is absolutely superb here, self-confident, manipulative, venal and absolutely seductive. This is the kind of performance that serves notice that you’re not just a B-movie actress, as she has already shown in several other indie films.
There are a couple of other great performances here as well, including Sevigny’s acerbic turn as Mrs. Johnson. Sevigny is an actress who is criminally underused by both Hollywood and the independent film scene. Her appearances are always much anticipated and appreciated by this critic, and she gives one of her best performances here in years. Bennett is also tip-top as the incredibly dense Sir James. He is delightfully funny and provides a fine counterpoint to the very intelligent Susan.
The only quibble I have is that so many of the other roles are played in an almost stilted fashion. That does make Beckinsale’s work stand out but I think it detracts from the rest of the film. I would have liked to have seen a little more personality in some of the other actors.
This is also a lush-looking film, with beautiful locations and sumptuous costumes and wigs. The period is recalled evocatively but in many ways you don’t feel you’re looking at the actual era so much as an idealized version of it. As is often the case in Austen’s work we rarely see beyond the walls of the upper classes – the savage poverty that was also a hallmark of the era. It exists only as a big bad boogieman to terrify those of the upper class who are teetering on the edge of it.
Jane Austen isn’t for everybody. Most audiences find her dull and slow, but there is a lyricism about her work – even the filmed versions of it – that I have found oddly moving and appealing throughout my life, from reading her actual words to the adaptations of those words. I think that she continues to teach us about the reality of who women are – or can be. She has created dozens of role models who can STILL be role models nearly 200 years after the fact. If there is anything more impressive than that, I can’t think of it.
REASONS TO GO: Beckinsale gives a marvelous performance and Bennett is inspired comic relief. Gorgeous costumes and settings. A fine adaptation of a lesser-known Austen work.
REASONS TO STAY: May be too mannered for some. A few of the supporting performances are too colorless to stand up.
FAMILY VALUES: Some of the thematic elements are a bit on the adult side.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sienna Miller was originally cast as Lady Susan, but had to drop out and Beckinsale was cast in her place.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/6/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sense and Sensibility
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10