Love & Friendship ★★★★½

Love & Friendship opened in Bellingham yesterday to a happy crowd of - wait for it - older women. Genuinely puzzled, my daughters, whom I had brought with me to the screening, commented on the sea of graying feminine heads. Jane Austen, so the perception goes, is just for the ladies.

I'm a fan of a number of Jane Austen adaptations, the Andrew Davies/Jennifer Ehle/Colin Firth Pride and Prejudice, of course, as well as the Emma Thompson/Ang Lee collaboration, Sense and Sensibility. But even these adaptations don't quite do Austen justice, for as far as I'm aware, every straight Austen adaptation up until now (let's leave loose adaptations like Clueless aside for the moment) have assumed that the love story is really the main point.

The Austen I know on the page, however, uses romance to explore and expose the folly at the heart of a social system and within the politics of gender. She exposes the folly in the human heart itself. For Austen is as shrewd a judge of human nature as Shakespeare or Dickens, and she’s a great deal more cynical than Dickens, who tends towards sentimentality, and more clear-eyed than Dickens, particularly about women, whom he tends to see as either shrews or angels. (Sidenote: I do love Dickens; let's just be clear about his tendencies.)

Love & Friendship is something new in the world of Austen adaptations: it gets the wit, satire, cynicism, humor, and incisive social commentary in the Austen canon. It's certainly possible that the centrality of the devious Lady Susan makes this story particularly suited to highlight Austen’s social satire, for Lady Susan is not exactly what we might call a romantic heroine.

Still, in the same way it would be a problem to call Much Ado About Nothing or As You Like It merely romances (for a lady-crowd) because they contain a romance plot, it is also a problem to assume that Jane Austen is a romance novelist whose adapted work will please only women.

Bless Whit Stillman.

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