Love & Friendship
Directed by Whit Stillman
Opens May 13
The pairing of Whit Stillman and Jane Austen was a match written in destiny ever since Audrey and Tom (who’d only read Lionel Trilling’s Austen criticism) debated the merits of Mansfield Park in 1990’s Metropolitan (or even—who knows?—since Stillman read his first Austen story). Both share an abiding, near-pathological interest in the intricacies of upper-ish class manners and caste delineations, observed with a slicing yet sympathetic eye and a fondness and talent for the witty line. For their resulting proper union, Stillman opted for an obscure early work, the epistolary novel Lady Susan (here retitled after a piece of her juvenilia), which the author, who swiftly grew beyond that then-popular form, chose never to publish. By all accounts a lighter affair than canon Austen, it is only indictable for not being profound, settling, like the film, for being “merely” constantly and hugely amusing throughout. Stillman’s rounded-out and embroidered telling is the kind of movie people call “delicious,” “sparkling,” and “a comic romp,” and it is indeed all of those.
Love & Friendship is front-loaded with a barrage of character identifications. Coming at a dizzying clip, they’re an early indication of the fast pace and ruthlessly practical summing up of people’s personalities and value that define the film. The plot is all machination and manipulation, with the unscrupulous and attractive Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale) minding the puppet strings. “Colourful rumours” circulating through polite London society have pushed the young widow to her in-laws’ country estate, where she arrives with her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) and an ulterior plan to secure a husband for one or the both of them. Her target for herself is the handsome and earnest Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel), for her daughter, the buffoonish but rich Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett). Her confidante in her web-weaving is friend Alicia Johnson, played by a husky-voiced Chloe Sevigny in a very welcome re-teaming from Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco (1998). Her enemies are nearly everyone else, particularly lady of the estate Catherine Vernon (Emma Greenwell), brother to Reginald who sees Lady Susan for who she is.
Stillman leisurely tapped at this adaptation for over a decade, outside of deadline demands, and you can feel both his pleasure at the benign self-assignment and the tightness of form that the extended gestation allowed him to hone. The film is faithful to Austen with its sets and scenery (even if the digital image is slightly flat), costumes, classical and baroque score and period diction (people say things like “From whence do you come?”), but you can nonetheless see the director’s hand in the unspectacular but efficient shot framing and the odd bit of 2010s (or at least 90s)-hip sarcasm that occasionally bobs up. It’s a welcome return to form after the ok but somehow off Damsels in Distress (2011), with its alienating obsession with “dance crazes” and stilted roasting of university life, starring Greta Gerwig blankly feigning disaffection. 2014’s one-off Amazon (who also produced Love & Friendship) pilot The Cosmopolitans evidenced the footing-finding that led to this current success, a thoroughgoing delight boasting, in addition to Beckinsale’s expert and verbally gymnastic lead turn, a cameo by drollness incarnate Stephen Fry as the “Respectable”—Fry’s performance is the acting equivalent of Komic Kapitals—Mr. Johnson, a man “not even unsympathetic enough to be a great villain, just quietly unpleasant,” in the actor’s words. His wonderful pop-in briefly lifts a film that didn’t even need lifting.