The works of Jane Austen have been plundered more extensively, perhaps, than any other English language author—although one suspects that Tolkien will have his due before the century is out—and this latest movie is based on a novella she purportedly wrote at the age of nine.
Ain’t nobody gonna do that with my nine-year-old scrawlings, that’s for sure. (Memo to self: Burn all old writings.)
This is the sixth film by Whit Stillman, and the first that I’ve seen, though we were pretty close to seeing Damsels In Distress until the reviews came out. There was a kind of Wes Anderson feel to the dialogue and characters in that film (or at seemed so from the trailer) but the mildly positive critical reviews (76%) couldn’t overcome the audience loathing (40%) and we stayed away.
So, whatever the success of that film, the same tone brought to turn of the 19th century England, seems somehow both very appropriate and very charming. And marking the first time Stillman has broken into the 8-digits of box office, reaching nearly $12 million dollars at the box office, sure to finish in the top 100 for the year.
I don’t know how they pick who gets to make movies.
That said, this is a very enjoyable film, if you like comedies of manners full of treachery and cutting wit, and aren’t too hung up on the plot. The story is that the recently widowed Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale), finding herself without means, is trying to fix up her recalcitrant daughter with a wealthy, but unsuitable man while she slyly (but not so well hidden as she believes) cavorts with a married man.
Lady Susan is beautiful (and Beckinsale is perfect for the role, at 42, easily out glamor-ing the rest of the cast) but not actually charming (presuming you don’t want to sleep with her), and a terrific example of what is really the most destructive element of polite society. She’s so bare-faced in her lies, and so exploitative of others’ politeness, her character would actually make a highly successful politician.
The movie ends rather abruptly (and happily, in that Austen way) and you can find yourself wondering, “Well, what was the point of all that?” And from a narrative standpoint, the story’s weakness comes from not really having a great protagonist. Our main character is Lady Susan, ultimately, and she’s utterly incapable of change.
Nonetheless, we had a good time. I enjoyed it quite a bit, and was a little bit surprised that The Boy was rather enthusiastic about it. But it was, overall, a clever tale cleverly told, brisk and, at 90 minutes, unlikely to wear out its welcome. Interestingly, while achieving near universal critical acclaim (one negative review on Rotten Tomatoes), the audience score has slowly dropped from the high 80% to a rather tepid 70%.
This may be in part due to the plot and narrative deficiencies, but may also be that the dialogue, which is the key element of the movie, obviously, can be rather hard to parse. It flows fast and is somewhat archaic, and having to parse out humor is never conducive to laughs.
But we managed. What surprised me was that my mother, who’s never been able to get through an Austen book (“boring”) and hates English stuff (because she can’t understand what they’re saying) really enjoyed this film. I think that may be because Lady Susan’s character is so truly awful, and some of us have a particular appreciation for that sort.