"The Furniture" is our weekly series on Production Design. Here's Daniel Walber...
Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) finds the countryside boring. She’d much rather be in London, safe from her daughter and her other dull relations. Yet she’s broke and bound by obligation to spend time at a large country estate. This is the central problem of Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship, a delightful adaptation of Jane Austen’s Lady Susan.
The estate in question is Churchill, the home of her brother-in-law Charles Vernon and his wife, Catherine Vernon (nee DeCourcy). Granted, as the amusingly dim-witted Sir James Martin points out, there appears to be neither church nor hill on the property. Instead there is only period-appropriate finery and some very subtle efforts to manipulate audience loyalty.
Production designer Anna Rackard and art directors Louise Mathews and Bryan Tormey go about this with great care.
Lady Susan is a selfish, scheming character whose relatives almost certainly deserve more of our sympathy. Yet she’s the protagonist, and also quite funny. We can’t be allowed to tire of her too quickly. And so the production design team emphasizes a point on which many of us can agree with Lady Susan: The countryside is the worst...
Churchill is decorated with a typically rural insistence, a philosophy of unremitting nostalgia for its own location. One is never allowed to forget, not even for a second, that one is in the country. The very first time we see Catherine Vernon, she is seated beneath a large equine painting. Horse portraiture was a specialty of a number 19th century English artists, and one can only imagine how their patrons enjoyed the country.
It goes on. There are images of birds everywhere, silently occupying the rooms of Churchill with remarkable tenacity. It is as if the suggestions of avian freedom will distract from all of the heavy doors, grand furniture, and layers of upper-class clothing. “You’re in the country, pretend to enjoy it.”
In this context, the quarters that the Vernons give to Lady Susan feel almost like a hint. There are almost as many bird paintings in this one bedroom as there are flower prints in The Lobster. The walls are painted green, another reminder. She will know exactly where she is from the moment she wakes up in the morning.
Not every example of this comes via the animal kingdom, of course. In one shot, as Lady Susan descends a staircase, a trio of framed prints are visible along the wall. They all feature women in the company of nature, finding dignity in the wilderness despite their wildly inconvenient impractical outfits.
And so, while there is no excusing Lady Susan’s behavior, it’s easy to understand where she’s coming from. True, one shouldn’t coldly manipulate one’s relatives out of boredom. On the other hand, these people and their house are mildly insufferable.
Even the marriage ceremony is a bit ridiculous. While the inedible flowers on the wedding cake don’t exactly ruin it, it’s hard not to see them as one last opportunity to scoff at the ridiculous pageantry of the upper class country home.