D/W: Whit Stillman. DP: Richard Van Oosterhout. Starring: Kate Beckinsale/Xavier Samuel/Morfydd Clark/Emma Greenwell/Justin Edwards/Tom Bennett/Jemma Redgrave/James Fleet/Chloe Sevigny/Stephen Fry. (Based on Jane Austen’s epistolary novel Lady Susan)
Writer and Director Whit Stillman’s newest venture, Love & Friendship, is out in theaters just in time to save us from the comic book boredom of films like X-Men: Apocalypse. Even non-Austenites will enjoy such a scintillating tale for both the eyes and ears.
Love & Friendship is based on Jane Austen’s epistolary novel, Lady Susan, that was published posthumously. Although very familiar with the Austen canon I have not read this particular work as it mostly made up of letters. Yet Stillman’s film is a self-conscious work that is aware of the Austen film adaptation history as well has heritage cinema. Working with conceits aware to him and the assumed audience, Love & Friendship introduces its cast of characters more like a play than a film, presenting each in vignette with a snarky description beneath their face. Immediately wit wins all in this palpable play of society chess.
At the center of the story is Lady Susan whose new widow status leaves her hopping houses, relying on family and friends hospitality for herself and her daughter. Kate Beckinsale stars as Lady Susan and looks the part which is not surprising since she played the lead role in Emma in a boring 1996 version for A&E on US television. Normally wooden this part suits a now older Beckinsale and her delivery of the script is a testament to Stillman. She helps to center the world around herself and covers her wickedness in a heavy head of curls. Xavier Samuel is a fine young suitor not unlike his fleshier role in 2013’s Adore. His earnestness is a bit Bingley-esq, but he eventually has enough Darcy to find his way. Morfydd Clark is an excellent Federica, Lady Susan’s daughter, and gives youth a frantic rage rather than a demure submissive role.
Stillman resists the urge to show off every home and make his film one centered on English heritage. Instead he hints at the tedious nature of rich country life in this time and focuses on the intricate verbal play of his characters and Lady Susan’s maneuvering between homes. Stirring up little pools of melodrama, her check ins with American friend Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevingny) allows scheming to be the name of the game. Love & Friendship provides all the sleuthing of Emma, but uses a character we are never asked to like. Lady Susan is manipulative, clever, and ultimately treacherous yet Stillman thankfully never berates the audience into liking her. Rather he presents his film as fun and clever mischief to be enjoyed.