Whit Stillman and Kate Beckinsale put a new spin on Jane Austen in Love & Friendship

The director and star talk about their adaptation of the lesser-known Jane Austen novel Lady Susan, which reunites them with their Last Days of Disco collaborator Chloe Sevigny

Kate Beckinsale in Love & Friendship. Bernard Walsh / Amazon Studios / Roadside Attractions
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The last time writer-director Whit Stillman worked with Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny was eighteen years ago. The film was The Last Days of Disco, his 1998 tale of two friends navigating the Manhattan club scene in the early 1980s.

While Beckinsale (Underworld, Pearl Harbor) and Sevigny (American Psycho, TV drama Big Love) went on to enjoy distinguished acting careers, Stillman stalled, not making another movie until 2011's campus comedy Damsels In Distress.

Now comes Love & Friendship, which marks both a reunion and a sparkling return to form.

"It feels like I'm back from the dead," he says, wryly. Based on Jane Austen's 'unfinished' novella Lady Susan, it is a witty comedy-of-manners that offers Beckinsale her best character role in years.

She plays the recently widowed Lady Susan, a savvy socialite who imposes herself on her in-laws as she searches for new husbands for herself and her wallflower-daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark).

“This is a fairly irreverent and atypical Jane Austen from what people are used to,” says Beckinsale. “[It’s a] different window onto what you expect from Jane Austen women. It’s not romantic.

“She’s a really quite major anti-hero and gets away with everything, which is very unusual for the period. If there is a sexually rapacious woman in literature of the time, she usually ends up dying of something — burnt alive. That’s what we’re used to.”

Armed with an acerbic tongue, Lady Susan is certainly different from Austen's better-known heroines, such as Pride and Prejudice's Elizabeth Bennet or Mansfield Park's Fanny Price.

“She lives on her wits and she’s very, very smart,” says Beckinsale. “That was one of those things — it was very difficult for women, who weren’t necessarily furnished with a fabulous education or walking into a fulfilling job. This is someone who is very bright and using her wit to dig herself out of holes and get ahead. And it was quite nice to see that.”

Stillman agrees.

“I like her because she gets the ball in the air, she gets things going, she makes things happen,” he says.

He began reading Austen in college after picking up a copy of Northanger Abbey. While he didn't like it — telling people Austen was overrated — his sister persuaded him to read Pride and Prejudice and he relented. Ever since, he's devoured her work. Characters in his 1990 debut film, Metropolitan, even make references to Austen.

In Beckinsale, Stillman had the perfect partner on the project.

“I think she was totally self-confident with the material,” he says. “I’ve grown up with Jane Austen, have my opinions on her and I’m not shy about saying them, and I think [Beckisale] has, too. So we were the two people that were steeped in this material and we could talk about it in this way.”

This is not Beckinsale's first brush with Austen — she starred in a 1996 TV movie of Emma and, a year earlier, took the lead role in the Austen-inspired comedy-drama Cold Comfort Farm.

“I just think she writes brilliant women — every romantic comedy every written is ripping off one of her novels at some point,” says Beckinsale.

“She’s definitely got the measure of that whole romance. But her female characters are flawed, on the whole, and interesting.”

With Lady Susan relatively unknown compared with her more famous works, the attraction to Love & Friendship was even greater.

“We’re the first people to have played these characters,” says Beckinsale. “To be groundbreaking in Jane Austen is pretty exciting.”

Starring alongside Beckinsale is Chloë Sevigny, who plays Lady Susan’s American confidante Alicia Johnson.

“She’s such a unique person,” says Beckinsale, “interesting, cool and has her own very particular style.”

While Sienna Miller was briefly considered for the lead, Stillman knew that ideally, he wanted his Last Days of Disco stars back together.

“It was always in my head that it might be a Chloë-Kate reunion,” he says. “They work very well together. They play very well together.”

Certainly, they make a fine team in the film, gossiping and scheming, as Lady Susan tries to manipulate social situations to her advantage.

"They're a little bit more simpatico," says Beckinsale, comparing them with the characters they played in Last Days of Disco. "They're partners in crime. My character in Love & Friendship is ... much more expert and she's not got Chloë in her crosshairs at all, so she doesn't get the bad side of it."

Lady Susan was written in 1794 but never submitted for publication by Austen. It was published in 1871, long after the author's death in 1817, and it will be intriguing to see how Austen scholars react to Stillman's adaptation.

The director reckons there are lots of “big Austen fans” who have never read the book, which gave him “licence” to change things — not least adjusting the text from its epistolary form — it is presented as a series of documents — to a more traditional narrative.

“I assume she would’ve done the same,” he says. “So in a sense, we were trying to do what she might’ve done.”

Love & Friendship is in UAE cinemas from May 19