Confession: though I always loved classic literature I could never make it through a single Jane Austen book – I tried at least four of her novels and gave them all up in the first fifty pages. Something about her writing style clearly rubs me wrong, but despite this, I enjoyed many of the Austen film and TV adaptations. While this onscreen version of her early, little-known novella is not my favourite it was amusing and diverting.
It stars Kate Beckinsale as Lady Susan Vernon, a widow who is determined to secure a new marriage in order to maintain her lifestyle. At the start of the movie, beset with some scandalous rumours, she seeks refuge at her in-laws’ countryside estate, which looks as idyllic as anything from Downton Abbey but Susan considers dull and dreary. There she schemes to marry her sister-in-law’s gorgeous younger brother Reginald. It goes swimmingly until the unexpected arrival of her young daughter, Frederica, who is pretty if shy and dangerously close in age to Reginald. Nevermind the setback, Susan decides to arrange Frederica’s marriage with the rich, amiable but outstandingly stupid Sir James Martin, a man so thick he has never heard of common peas.
Unlike other Austen adaptations I’ve seen, this one doesn’t have much romance or heart, instead it’s a sharp, dry, snappy comedy of manners with a fantastic lead turn from Beckinsale, who has a ball playing a complete conniving, scheming bitch. I don’t think she’s had a better role in her entire career, although it made me feel old to realise that an actress I first saw onscreen as a young girl is now old enough to have a grown-up onscreen daughter. Susan is a terrible person, but so cheerfully cynical and such a master in the art of manipulation she’s impossible to truly dislike and you rather want her to succeed. It took me a while to wrap my head around the cast of characters (individually introduced with some droll captions), and tune my ear to the Austen dialogue, which comes thick and fast in this very talky movie. Once I got used to it though the language is delightful, with some hilarious one-liners, such as Susan’s remark on her American friend’s (Chloe Sevigny) husband: “too old to be governable, too young to die.” Naturally, as befits a period movie there’s also costume and scenery porn to revel in.