Film Reviews

LOVE & FRIENDSHIP

By • Jul 6th, 2016 •

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It is perhaps a truth soon to be universally acknowledged, that the novels of Jane Austen attract dependably dedicated admirers, even if her movie audience is a rarified one, compared to, say, J. K. Rowling or Stephen King.

Jane Austen is fortunate that so many good films have been made from her few novels–especially considering that her novels have little of anything that would be considered cinematic action. Her novels are mainly noted for their sly comedy and verbal elegance, and their convenient convention of romance reliably ending in marriage. Yet producer-director-screenwriter Whit Stillman has mined a new source.

Stillman’s new LOVE & FRIENDSHIP is based on an early lesser-known work, an 18th Century epistolary novella, Lady Susan. The basic story line is simple, an entertaining satire following the schemes of a predatory “coquette”–in this case, a beguilingly beautiful young widow on the make–but there’s a complexity of a dozen characters and their shifting interrelationships that makes this a challenging film project.

The recently bereaved Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) has just outstayed her welcome in London, where her hostess has discovered Lady Susan’s scandalous flirtations with the host. Lady Susan, obliged as a last resort to decamp to stay with her in-laws at their country estate, pretending a non-existent affection, arrives in the hope of a long stay until the shocked gossip dies down. Once ensconced, Lady Susan easily charms her susceptible brother-in-law, yet her sister-in-law Catherine is wary–and becomes warier still when her younger brother Reginald (Xavier Samuel), curious to see the notorious Lady Susan, soon falls under her spell. True to form, as Susan flirts with Reginald, she calculates the likelihood of his father dying to leave Reginald as heir.

Lady Susan’s blooming adolescent daughter Frederica has been bundled off to a boarding school as punishment after the normally meek girl has refused to submit to pressure to marry a rich but unendurably silly ignoramus. Susan, hardly a doting mother, is happy to have the girl out of the way, so is annoyed when Frederica arrives unexpectedly after being expelled, having been discovered in planning to run away from an enforced marriage.

This sets the stage for the interlacing stories of pursuit, flirtation, rebuff, deception, manipulation and, of course, love. Relatives worry anxiously, Frederica’s absurdly prattling admirer comes calling, and Lady Susan coolly schemes.

Despite the title of LOVE & FRIENDSHIP, the dichotomy here is Love & Money. Jane Austen is sometimes chided for supposedly dwelling on money (it was notably quipped that in Austen’s view, it was wrong to marry for money, but foolish to marry without it), yet it remains a constant concern, especially for women when their entire happiness and security might depend on it. Nevertheless, Stillman makes it even clearer than Austen that here the women have learned how to maneuver very effectively.

But the greatest pleasure here is that whereas most Austen films focus on the drama of the romance, here the emphasis is on the comedy. This is simply a lovely romp in the best 18th Century fashion, treading lightly and scampering ahead at a lively pace. Unlike the crudeness of contemporary mainstream American comedies, here the audience is actually obliged to pay attention to the witty dialogue. There’s even a difference in the way the laughter ripples through the audience, with a frequent double-take. When Lady Susan is optimistically looking forward to the future independence of her devious ally Alicia, for instance, it takes an extra moment to decipher that she’s really hoping for the death of Alicia’s most respectable husband.

Kate Beckinsale expertly embodies the manipulative Lady Susan, with a veneer of propriety and sweetness masking a core of rapacious self-interest. Her voice, above all–more than her elegant appearance, more than her movements–is perfection, expressively alluring. Apart from a disappointing bland performance by Chloë Sevigny as Susan’s American-born confidant Alicia, which unfortunately highlights the disparity between American and British actors, where the latter are trained for crispness and clarity in diction, the rest of the cast is rounded out ably, particularly with the hilariously memorable Tom Bennett as the cheerfully inane suitor.

As with most Austen films, the production is a visual delight, despite a comparatively limited budget. The movie was largely filmed at magnificent estates in Ireland, and the costuming is eye-catching, particularly in the way that Lady Susan’s gowns evolve from her funereal black widow’s weeds to a flamboyant, if unlikely, deep crimson satin.

Of all the male directors of Austen features, Whit Stillman may be the only one readily believable as having a familiarity with Austen before taking on this project. Indeed, he’s now working on a further original novelization. Noted for his comedies of manners, beginning with his 1990 debut METROPOLITAN, this fits right in with his sensibility. This sensibility is immediately apparent even as the movie opens, with credits appearing in decorous synch to the music, and he sets the playful tone and helpfully introduces the main characters by providing each with the equivalent of a portrait and a capsule characterization.

Of Stillman’s three functions, his most impressive role is as screenwriter, with this remarkably skillful adaptation, not only translating the work into a cinematic scenario, but also blending in a few ingenious plot embellishments of his own invention. Although there is little direct dialogue in the book, Stillman, with a near-perfect ear for Austen, is adept not only at fleshing out the script, which meshes brilliantly, not only faithful to Austen in tone, but even channeling Oscar Wilde, as with Lady Susan sighing, “Having children is our fondest wish, but in doing so we breed our severest critics.”

Jane Austen would consider herself exceedingly well-matched.

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