Dublin provided the perfect backdrop for Whit Stillman’s raunchy adaptation of one of Jane Austen’s lesser-known works, writes Helen Barlow
KATE Beckinsale must have been cold. When the 42-year-old braved the Sundance red carpet in what resembled a large white couture handkerchief draped around her body and slender bare shoulders, she was clearly making a statement: “I’m back!”
The US-based British actress, who has also returned to the Underworld franchise that had her looking feisty in slinky latex, was in Sundance promoting Whit Stillman’s surprisingly contemporary Jane Austen adaptation, Love & Friendship, which was filmed in Dublin.
Beckinsale plays Lady Susan Vernon, an impoverished self-interested high society widow she describes as “a scheming bitch”.
“It was a bit like doing King Lear. There’s so much dialogue, mainly me, blistering on and on and on,” she muses.
For Stillman it’s been a while between movies. His previous effort had been 2011’s Damsels in Distress and prior to that, the American director had paired Beckinsale with Chloe Sevigny in 1999’s Last Days of Disco. Now Sevigny, who also appears in Stillman’s television series, The Cosmopolitans, reunites with her two friends for Love & Friendship. At Sundance, Stillman thanked the actresses for coming on board as they enabled the production to go ahead.
“The big challenge these days is getting the financing,” he told the crowd at the film’s world premiere. “Once you’ve got the financing everything else is a solvable problem.”
He also thanked the Irish Film Board. “They were helpful in every way. In Dublin we found the best and most expert possible crew for period films.”
The Irish capital, he says, was perfect as an Austen milieu. “In the period of the film Dublin was the second great capital great city in the empire and there was a lot of wealth, a lot of English wealth, and great Georgian architecture. Every kind of production advantage was available in Ireland. I was considering filming in London but many people said the scale of the city was too big. In Dublin it was very pleasant.”
Stillman had been adapting Love & Friendship, based on Austen’s novella, Lady Susan, for over a decade. Originally written in epistolary form around 1794, and published posthumously in 1871, it’s a kind of precursor to Austen’s better-known novels. The story was largely unfinished and Stillman changed it considerably. Certainly we’ve never seen Austen be as funny or as raunchy as this.
When Lady Susan arrives to stay at the country estate of her sister-in-law, Mrs Catherine Vernon (Emma Greenwall), she is determined to find a husband to solve her financial woes. Initially she sets her sights on Catherine’s younger brother, the naïve nobleman, Sir Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel), who immediately succumbs to her charms.
When her attractive daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) arrives on the scene, she becomes worried that she might steal her thunder and attempts to match her with the much older and less handsome Sir James Martin. He’s an even a richer nobleman desperate for a wife and is played by scene-stealing English actor Tom Bennett with wild eccentricity.
“Tom brought so much to it,” recalls Stillman with a chuckle. “We had a table reading, which is always kind of a weird thing, and Tom was only there on the laptop as a Skype presence. There had been so much tension in the room and then suddenly there was Sir James Martin doing this hilarious thing. It was exciting because Tom created the character based on a few scenes that were in the novel. I wrote a lot of those scenes for him and one of the many contributions that [Irish] producer Katie Holly made to the production was her chance mention of the ‘Twelve Commandments’, which became one of Sir James Morton’s many faux pas. The character appears much more in the film than in the novel.”
Sevigny plays the latter character, an American who married into the British aristocracy (Stephen Fry) and is Susan’s best friend and confidante.
— Love & Friendship (@LandFMovie) May 7, 2016
“I made the character American with a really funny back story so they could both be together in the film,” explains Stillman. “Some of Chloe’s ideas were very good and it was helpful to have someone focusing on every scene and going through Alicia’s motivations.”
(Sevigny is presenting her directing debut, the short film Kitty, in Cannes.)
Both women look radiant in all their finery, with Sevigny donning particularly adventurous costumes and Beckinsale looking sassy and seductive.
“I was surprised that we had pretty much all of our costumes made from scratch,” notes Beckinsale. “I turned up for what I thought was a tiny project to find extraordinary costumes, several for each of us and which were really tailored to the characters. I think Chloe had the most outrageous ones. There were more boobs on Chloe’s, funnily enough! They were lovely and very concerned with colours. Whit had gone a different way and wanted something different to what we’re used to seeing in Jane Austen novels. He wanted to go for a saucier French fashion of the period. So that was nice.”
In many ways Stillman adopted the same methodology when he created Last Days of Disco, she says.
— Love & Friendship (@LandFMovie) May 4, 2016
“That was also a period movie and he was just as much a stickler about the late early ’90s as he was about doing this. I like that about Whit. He’s very meticulous. Two centuries ago in rural England seems removed from your normal reality, but in a way it makes perfect sense.”
Stillman is old fashioned and oddly formal in his ways. With his dialogue-heavy cinematic treatises on class and manners, Barcelona and Metropolitan, he had created a cinematic oeuvre all of his own. Eminently suited to Jane Austen’s sensibility — “I can relate to everything about her” — he had first read Pride and Prejudice shortly after graduating from Harvard and has been obsessed with her writing ever since. He even wrote a novel based on Lady Susan, because he didn’t believe the novella was finished. With his new film he is in a sense finishing with the project. Holly greatly enjoyed their collaboration.
“I think there’s a respectful irreverence to the material that gave us the freedom to play with the characters without being too much in awe of Jane Austen or too much in awe of that kind of parlance,” she says. “I think that’s where the humour comes through and what Whit has changed most successfully.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved