Thursday, May 26, 2016

Austen, manners and much amusement

Director Whit Stillman (Metropolitan, Damsels in Distress) has taken Jane Austen's early, epistolary novel Lady Susan and turned it into an amusing trifle. I don't use the word "trifle" to demean Stillman's efforts, but to describe its level of amusement in a fair and, I hope, appealing way. Kate Beckinsale plays Lady Susan, a flirtatious widow with a reputation that challenges English notions of propriety. Among other things, Lady Susan preoccupies herself with finding a husband for her daughter (Morfydd Clark), a young woman who has been dismissed from a private school that Lady Susan can't afford. Lady Susan pushes her daughter toward a doltish, giggling fool of a man, Sir James Martin (a very amusing Tom Bennett). Smart and attractive, Lady Susan proves alluring to the men she encounters, notably young Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel) and older Lord Manwaring (Lochlainn O'Mearain), who happens to be married. The American Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny) is Lady Susan's best friend. Stephen Fry has a tasty turn as Alicia's aging husband. Stillman is particularly good at allowing some of his characters to reveal their fatuousness. An example: When the giddy Sir James confronts a plate of peas for the first time, he can't resist describing them as "tiny green balls." Beckinsale's feisty, razor sharp turn holds everything together, and gives the movie its sting. Well-appointed and true to its period, the movie is nonetheless bouncy and amusing. Besides, what are Eighteenth Century drawing rooms for -- if not characters such as these.

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