2021 Film Essays

Sharp Wits and Sharp Swords: How ‘Love & Friendship’ and ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’ Reveal Jane Austen’s Savage Side

Love & Friendship - Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Jane Austen’s stories are already more pointed and complex than many people give them credit for, but two 2016 film adaptations took that caustic tone to new heights: Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship, an adaptation of Austen’s lesser-known early novel Lady Susan, and Burr Steers’ Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, an adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2009 Austen mash-up novel. Both come from filmmakers who got their start in literate, talky indie movies, and both bring the savage wit and biting social commentary of Austen’s work to the forefront. In Love & Friendship, the brutality is merely emotional, while in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, it’s more visceral and life-threatening. But both defy mainstream expectations of an Austen movie, trading niceties for gleeful nastiness.

In Love & Friendship, Kate Beckinsale plays the delightfully passive-aggressive Lady Susan Vernon, a freeloading widow who revels in meddling in the lives of others, generally to secure the best outcome for herself. As much of a busybody as Emma Woodhouse is in Austen’s Emma, at least her intentions are honorable. But Lady Susan is entirely selfish, interested in her own position and comfort, even at the expense of her timid daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark). As a widow, Lady Susan is financially dependent on the generosity of others, but she’s romantically free in a way that few women of her time period are, and she indulges in that freedom by engaging in dalliances with pretty much any man she chooses, regardless of his marital status.

Lady Susan’s reputation as “the most accomplished flirt in all of England” precedes her as she takes up residence at Churchill, the country estate owned by her late husband’s brother Charles Vernon (Justin Edwards). Upon arriving, she sets her sights on handsome young Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel), brother of Charles’ wife Catherine (Emma Greenwell). Reginald is intelligent, attractive and wealthy, but for Lady Susan, perhaps the most important thing is that he’s a challenge. “There’s a certain pleasure in making a person predetermined to dislike instead acknowledge one’s superiority,” she remarks to her fawning companion Mrs. Cross (Kelly Campbell).

Love & Friendship Movie Film

There are occasional implications that the death of Lady Susan’s late husband may have been deliberate in some way, and both Lady Susan and her American best friend Alicia Johnson (Chloë Sevigny) — the only person as unsparing and unsentimental as Lady Susan is — lament that Alicia’s much older husband (Stephen Fry) has not succumbed to some illness yet. If there were zombies around in her version of Regency England, Lady Susan would most certainly have them doing her bidding. She’d be a formidable match for the likes of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’ Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Lena Headey), the eye-patched zombie-slaying champion of England.

Various rules of decorum often prevent the characters in Austen stories from saying what they truly feel, and part of what makes Love & Friendship so deliriously entertaining is that Lady Susan always finds a way to speak her mind without breaking those unspoken rules. “If she were going to be jealous, she should not have married such a charming man,” Lady Susan says of Lady Lucy Manwaring (Jenn Murray), whose husband Lady Susan takes pleasure in seducing. She always finds a way to blame others for her scheming, making it appear that it’s their fault for not always giving her the benefit of the doubt. 

And yet Stillman and Beckinsale make her into the most fascinating, vibrant character in the movie. The rigid gender roles of Regency society force people like Lady Susan to use whatever means they have at their disposal to achieve some level of independence, and the same goes for the Bennet sisters in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, whose life of constant peril paradoxically affords them a degree of autonomy that Lady Susan is denied. Their father (Charles Dance) refers to them as his “warrior daughters,” and in the movie’s reimagining of Austen’s society, training in martial arts and weaponry is as important for young ladies as learning to sew or play the piano. “Keep your swords as sharp as your wits,” Mr. Bennet advises his daughters.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies Movie Film

That doesn’t mean that the Bennet sisters are immune to love, or that their mother (Sally Phillips) isn’t trying to marry them off to wealthy gentlemen. But it means that Lizzy Bennet (Lily James) is on more equal footing with the haughty Colonel Darcy (Sam Riley) than she is in most versions of this story, or than Lady Susan is with any of her potential paramours. Darcy is still brooding and arrogant, but he’s immediately drawn to Lizzy’s prowess at dispatching the undead, along with her poise and intelligence. “I shall never relinquish my sword for a ring,” Lizzy declares, and in this world, she’s able to have both, even if only because she’d be dead otherwise.

The ever-present threat of death peels back some of the layers of civility in this world, although the characters are still fixated on fancy balls and invitations for tea and games of whist. But when Lizzy and her sisters gossip about their various suitors, they do so while vigorously sparring, holding nothing back as they throw kicks and punches at each other, bounding through the cellar of the Bennet family home. The sniveling Mr. Collins (Matt Smith) is clearly an inferior suitor in large part because he’s determined to have a wife who gives up her warrior ways in favor of staying in the kitchen. And yet even Collins is in awe of Lady Catherine, who’s both his patron and Darcy’s aunt.

Lizzy and Darcy still make the inevitable journey from hostility to affection, although they too engage in physical combat while working out their feelings for each other, and Steers playfully has them damage their confining high-society outfits, letting their passion spring free. The movie’s balance between zombie thriller and romantic dramedy shifts in favor of the former in the final act, generally to its detriment, with Darcy taking on the role of action hero in the big final battle against the zombie hordes. But just when it appears that Lizzy and the rest of the Bennet sisters have been relegated back to their assigned Regency-era positions, Lizzy literally rides in on a horse to rescue her beloved, and it’s her declaration of love for him that revives him from near death.

That’s more sentiment than Stillman ever puts into Love & Friendship, even though that movie likewise pairs off its main characters by the end. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies closes with a dual wedding, for Lizzy and Darcy and for Lizzy’s sister Jane (Bella Heathcote) and Darcy’s friend Bingley (Douglas Booth), but the eventual nuptials for Lady Susan happen offscreen. The wedding at the end of Love & Friendship is instead for Lady Susan’s daughter Frederica, the kind-hearted contrast to her ruthless mother. Like the zombies in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Lady Susan remains poised in the background, ready to strike again at a moment’s notice.

Josh Bell (@signalbleed) is a freelance writer and movie/TV critic based in Las Vegas. He’s the former film editor of Las Vegas Weekly and has written about movies and pop culture for Syfy Wire, Polygon, CBR, Film Racket, Observer and more. With comedian Jason Harris, he co-hosts the podcast Awesome Movie Year.

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