Not since "Les Liaisons dangereuses" has aristocratic misbehavior been as much
entertaining deviersion as this study in Victorian ambition, deceit and
guile, albeit without the graphic seduction. One of the similarities is the
literary categorization of both as "epistolary" stories, that is, employing
the device of a series of letters, or epistles. Another is the scheming woman
in the world of high privilege seeking a berth. That theme alone has enough
prior company to call it a sub-genre.
Adapted and directed by Whit Stillman, based on Jane Austen's "Lady Susan"
(1794), the issue is who Frederica Vernon (Morfydd Clark) will marry. The
problem is that she, poor child, having just been expelled from boarding
school, thinks the choice will be hers.
What she's incapable of taking into account is what role her mother, Lady
Susan (Kate Beckinsale pretty much at her best), whose fortunes have been
eradicated by having created a scandal with a married man, will play in her
At the moment Lady Susan and her lady-in-waiting Alicia Johnson (Chloe
Sevigny, "Lovelace") have lodged themselves at Churchill, her
brother-in-law's country estate, a multi-roomed habitat of immense
proportions. This locale provides a proper setting to attract the sort of men
who might provide the sort of security she envisions.
We soon see that she's got the looks and the manipulative chops to influence
everyone around her by taking every advantage of the courtship mores of her
time. With the strategies of a behavioral genius, she's soon having long
walks on the grounds to give handsome heir Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel)
a reason for his attentive visits.
From a 21st century perspective, she's a con person who gets what she wants.
The attraction is in the manner of getting and the principles that must be
Beckinsale ("Pearl Harbor") is wickedly devious with her frisky composure and
masterful manipulation. The trick is to make it stylish and naughtily
comedic enough to maintain audience sympathy for an inscrutable demon, which
is actually a bit of an acting tightrope to walk. I think most filmgoers will
stay on her side for the sport and ultimate harmlessness of it, as I did.
Acting-wise Sevigny isn't her equal but Fry is the ideal lord of the
manor. Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh's costumery is as much of a draw as the actors
who wear it so well and in which they take such obvious pleasure. I sense it
claimed a good part of the budget, which was a very good call.
~~ Jules Brenner