Kate Beckinsale has been rigorously trained in the manners and mores of Jane Austen.
Two decades after she ventured forth into her first Austen project, playing the eponymous heroine in the 1996 BBC adaptation of Emma, the actress has returned to the 18th century to play deliciously devious Lady Susan Vernon in the film Love & Friendship.
The picture, written and directed by Whit Stillman, is based on Lady Susan, an almost unheard of Austen epistolary novel about a widowed mother.
‘Basically, she’s got to figure out how to make money to survive — that’s underpinning everything,’ Beckinsale explained.
Two decades after her first Jane Austen part, Kate Beckinsale (pictured) has returned to the 18th century to play deliciously devious Lady Susan Vernon in the film Love & Friendship
It’s the way the brazen Lady Susan (one of her in-laws describes her as a ‘serpent in Eden’s garden’) goes about achieving that aim that makes Beckinsale’s performance and Stillman’s film utterly delightful.
She breezes into the homes of those in-laws, not caring a whit whether she’s causing inconvenience by overstaying her welcome, or overstating her interest in eligible (or even ineligible) members of the opposite sex who might make a second husband for her, or a first for her 17-year-old daughter, played by hot, up-and-coming actress Morfydd Clark.
Beckinsale was taken the moment she read Stillman’s script, though she first thought he’d written the story himself, in the style of Austen. ‘I read the novella after the script,’ she told me, noting that she was captivated by ‘this wonderful, sparky strong woman’.
‘If it was set today, she’d have an insanely great job, a bunch of lovers, and she wouldn’t have to be so manipulative in her private life,’ she commented.
The 42-year-old said Lady Susan’s motivation is clear: ‘Getting what she wants.’
We chatted about Lady Susan’s traits, such as disdaining the truth (‘Facts are horrid things’) and ruthlessly pursuing her targets.
‘She’s got an ease in herself. She doesn’t think she’s doing anything wrong. I think she generally feels that people are a bit stuffy and stupid,’ is Beckinsale’s view.
‘It’s very refreshing for a heroine from that period of literature not to be punished for being ruthless, ambitious and cunning,’ she added, while observing that it wouldn’t normally end well for such a woman.
Beckinsale’s performance in the period drama film written and directed by Whit Stillman is utterly delightful
‘She has her cake and eats it, which women in history rarely do.’
The actress said she was grateful for her apprenticeship on Austen’s Emma, 20 years ago, when she worked with the dialect coach Joan Washington.
‘She ironed out any kind of Hammersmith, London girls’ school noise in your voice. It’s no good just turning up and being English. You’ve got to sound like you’re from the 18th century, and like you’ve never taken a Tube in your life.’ Washington did a day’s refresher work with her on Love & Friendship.
There was another reunion, too: with Chloe Sevigny, who worked with Beckinsale on Stillman’s 1998 film The Last Days Of Disco, and who plays Lady Susan’s friend in this new venture.
Beckinsale praised Stillman for being ‘so good at writing tricky females’. She laughed: ‘Obviously, every time he writes one, he asks for me — which is worrying’.
‘I’m choosing to take it as a compliment,’ she said, after a pause.
Well, Stillman certainly brings out the best in Beckinsale and, after watching the film twice, I’m struck by how he’s helped produce the finest performance of her career.
The actress said she relished playing a woman without constraint. ‘When you get a single-minded woman who’s OK with breaking the rules, it’s really thrilling.’
It’s the kind of feisty role that Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck played all the time back in the Silver Screen days. ‘We do love a broad,’ Beckinsale laughed. Blokes aren’t allowed to say such a thing but I agree: broads are best.
The film boasts a terrific ensemble that includes Tom Bennett at the top of his game, Emma Greenwell, Xavier Samuel and Stephen Fry.
Love & Friendship goes on UK release May 27.