Amazon Studios’ Love & Friendship isn’t exactly Sense and Sensibility. That’s exactly why it’s an absolute delight.
Based on Jane Austen’s novel Lady Susan, Love & Friendship is the story of Lady Susan, played by Kate Beckinsale, a cold-hearted and malicious flirt who also happens to be an unattached widow. Imagine Pride and Prejudice‘s Lydia with a healthy dose of Loki’s cunning and manipulation, and you’re pretty close to an accurate image of her.
To be frank, she’s just not a good person. She’s manipulative, flirtacious, and lustful, while her friend Mrs. Johnson is hardly any better. So why, then, do we spend an entire book, let alone an Amazon Studios production, on this wretched character? Well as it turns out, in addition to Beckinsale’s comical performance, the story actually ends up telling us some very needed truths about deception and lust – truths that it manages to tell without the salacious content that could easily accompany them in other settings.
After Lady Susan’s husband dies, she goes to live with her brother-in-law and sister-in-law. Her sister-in-law’s younger brother, Reginald DeCourcy, speaks of Lady Susan before she arrives as “the most accomplished flirt in all of England.” Lady Susan’s reputation is clear, and seems difficult to refute. But after she arrives, and begins talking with him, he very quickly falls under her charm, and has a completely opposite opinion of her. Throughout the events of the film, it becomes difficult to conjure up a situation in which he wouldn’t be able to think up some excuse for her actions.
“For the commandment is a lamp and the teaching a light, and the reproofs of discipline are the way of life, to preserve you from the evil woman, from the smooth tongue of the adulteress. Do not desire her beauty in your heart, and do not let her capture you with her eyelashes; for the price of a prostitute is only a loaf of bread, but a married woman hunts down a precious life.” – Pro 6:23-26
At the time that Reginald is speaking with Susan, she’s not an adulteress – at least, not that we know of. But we would hardly be surprised to learn that this was the case. The audience is also set up to like Reginald, so that Lady Susan’s character turns from comical and silly to frustrating and ultimately infuriating for how she is seducing a man who ought to have better sense.
In sharp contrast to this is Lady Susan’s daughter, Frederica, who is very humble and sincere. Her greatest crime in the eyes of her mother, however, is that she will not marry the most laughable and ridiculous character Jane Austen ever thought up (“What are these little green balls?” (peas), “You read poetry and verse?”). This is misconstrued by Susan to be somehow dishonoring to her mother, and thus she casts her daughter down constantly every moment the two are onscreen together. This is hardly a picture of a healthy mother-daughter relationship, but the end result is commendable: she, not her mother, is the one to be praised by the end of this film.
With that in mind, it is very significant how Frederica responds to her mother’s charges. She does not curse her mother, go storming out of the house, or lecture her mother on why exactly she is wrong (even though she is). Instead, she treats her mother with decorum and respect, going to others for help in changing her mother’s mind, and ultimately believes that she cannot speak ill of her mother, or at least, not without extreme extenuating circumstances. This is perhaps the greatest thing of all about Frederica’s example: she has a deplorable mother, and yet she never returns her mother’s ill treatment of her.
All of that said, the film’s greatest weakness is also one of its greatest strengths: if you aren’t used to Austen-era language, it may not seem very accessible. A lot of attention is required, particularly in the first act, when the sheer number of characters seems overwhelming. That aside, it’s well worth the effort, but does suffer from a slightly lackluster ending. There’s no grand reveal of Lady Susan’s injustice – at least to those around her. We do see Frederica’s virtue pay off, but not in as large a way as seems to be demanded by the story.
But those are small quibbles. It’s a fantastic film, endorsing true virtue over shallowness and lust, and I wish there were more films like it.