Love and Friendship and the rich history of Jane Austen adaptations

27 May 2016 BY Joe Ursell in Film Features

8 mins
Love and Friendship
Love and Friendship

Love and Friendship is the brilliant new film from cult American director Whit Stillman. An adaptation of lesser-known Jane Austen novella, Lady Susan, it tells the story of a beautiful but scheming and impoverished young widow (played by Kate Beckinsale, who also starred as Emma in another Austen adaptation on television in 1996) attempting to find a suitable new match for herself and her teenage daughter. Seeking refuge at her in-laws, things get much more complicated when rumours about Lady Susan's private life begin to circulate through society. 

Adaptations of Austen's work have often proved successful vehicles for up-and-coming stars. One of the strongest is Ang Lee's 1995 version of Sense and Sensibility, scripted by Emma Thompson and starring a young Kate Winslet. Pride and Prejudice introduced director Joe Wright to the world and was also a turning point in Keira Knightley's career, whilst a similar impact was had on Gwyneth Paltrow as a result of her own role as Emma. All of these films are full of Austen's trademark irony and wit, as well as the resplendent locations and lavish costumes that have long characterised the period drama genre.

However, some interpretations of Austen's work are more radical. Clueless famously transported the world of Emma to 1990s Beverley Hills, while British director Gurvinder Chadha reimagined the Bennet's and Darcy's in modern Bollywood in Bride and Prejudice. More recently, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies turned the story into a comic horror, blending traditions of the period genre with those of modern horror in playful fashion. And of course, Bridget Jones's Diary brought Pride and Prejudice into turn-of-the-century, twenty-something London, wryly playing on the iconic BBC version starring Colin Firth.

Lady Susan is believed to have been written by a young Jane Austen in the mid 1790s, as she was about to start work on Sense and Sensibility. As was fashionable at the time, the story was written in letter (or epistolary) form - a style Austen later turned against when honing the works that would make her such a beloved cultural figure. Sense and Sensibility also began in epistolary form, before she transformed it into the third-person narrative that characterised her prose from then on. It was not until 1871 -  well after Austen's death in 1817 - that Lady Susan was finally published.

Although the story of Lady Susan retains much of what we think of as traditionally Austenian, the tone is rather different to her later work. The satire is slightly more biting and risqué, and has drawn comparisons with writers like Oscar Wilde and Evelyn Waugh. Unusually for romantic literature, Lady Susan is not a particularly good person, and there is a ruthlessness and mercilessness to her that does not feature in Austen's other heroines. And yet she remains an oddly likeable and hugely watchable presence on screen. The title Love and Friendship is taken from one of Austen's youthful short stories, which the filmmakers felt sounded more Austenian, incorporating more of the rich array of characters that appear throughout the film.

Walt Stillman is known for his films about women in upper class American society, such as The Last Days of Disco and Damsels In Distress, making him a logical fit for the world of Austen. These films - alongside his debut Metropolitan, a loose adaptation of Austen's Mansfield Park - are comedies of manners, taking place in enclosed societies, and characterised by their wry, elegant dialogue. Working on the script casually for many years, one of the draws for Stillman choosing to adapt the not-quite-finished novella was the prospect of adding another Austen volume to the shelf of her great works, albeit this time in film form. 

One of the most striking parts of the film are the fabulous costumes, put together by designer Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh. Rather than the loose-fitting, high-waisted outfits seen in most Austen adaptations, Eimer took a more creative approach. The blessing of the earlier setting meant she could embrace a broader time-frame for the fashions they wanted, although their very limited budget meant there had to be lots of compromise along the way. As the film is a comedy, Eimer also felt she had licence to be a little more daring, seeking to merge meticulous historical accuracy with her own creativity as a designer.

Watch the development of Lady Susan's costumes carefully. We see her arrive as a widow in fairly sombre dress, but as she returns to society, her costumes gradually become increasingly resplendent, and move from black, into grey, lilac, purple and ultimately, a remarkably bold red. The production also made extensive use of the extraordinary range of costumes available at Cosprop, and Angels in London, who spent a great deal of time with Eimer fitting much of the cast with their outfits. More information on costume design can be found by looking at our resources on Belle and Bill.

Another distinctive element of the film is its music. Composer Mark Suozzo incorporated his love of Baroque compositions into what we hear, using music and influences from earlier in the 18th century to better reflect the spirit of the piece. The film was edited to the sounds of carefully selected composers, to ensure that there was always a strong marriage between music and film, feeding into every part of the creative process.

Love and Friendship is a fantastic example of using film to open up works of literature. Retaining many of the traditions of Austen's world, the film is able to use its slightly younger voice to reveal a more biting tone, and Stillman has opted to focus much more on the dialogue than the landscapes and buildings. The fact that the novella was unfinished has given the filmmakers licence to make the story feel fresh and modern, whilst still rooted in its period. Stillman now plans to work his script into novel form, adding another layer to this already fascinating merger of literature and film. It might just be that Love and Friendship marks the establishment of another key text into the Jane Austen canon.

Explore the themes of the film further with our Into Film Recommends podcast below, or login to SoundCloud to download the podcast and listen on the go.

The Into Film Recommends Podcast Series is also available on iTunes.

Portrait picture of Joe Ursell

Joe Ursell, Film Curator

Joe has a BA in Film & American Studies from the University of East Anglia and an MA in Contemporary Cinema Cultures from King's College London. He has worked with the BFI London Film Festival and on the production of ITV documentary 56 Up.

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