You could almost say Jane Austen adaptations make up their own small, intimate movie genre. Obviously you have the gushy, sudsy dramas such as “Sense and Sensibility” and “Pride and Prejudice” which together have been adapted nearly twenty times in film and television. You could also include the wide range of movies that found their inspiration in Austen’s work – movies ranging from “Bridget Jones’s Diary” to the wackier “Clueless”. To venture even further into absurdity just this year we had “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”. The title says it all.
The latest Austen film treatment may be the cleverest and best executed of the bunch. It’s “Love & Friendship”, a whip-smart period comedy named after an early Austen story but actually based her epistolary novel “Lady Susan”. It’s the fifth film from writer and director Whit Stillman and his first since 2011’s fabulous oddball campus comedy “Damsels in Distress”. “Love & Friendship” is very much a Stillman picture – intelligent, tightly focused, and refreshingly modern. That last description is especially impressive since the film perfectly fits within its late 18th century aristocratic setting.
Kate Beckinsale plays the conniving, opportunistic Lady Susan. A recent widow and completely broke, she makes her way to the estate of her brother-in-law Charles (Justin Edwards) and his wife Catherine (Emma Greenwell). They agree to let Lady Susan stay with them even though they are aware of her flirty, gold-digging history. Lady Susan instantly sets her eyes on Catherine’s younger, handsome, and (most importantly) wealthy brother Reginald (Xavier Samuel).
What follows is a comical mélange of scheming and manipulation as Lady Susan works to regain her rich, high society status. In the process she encounters a number of obstacles including Reginald’s parents who are well aware of Lady Susan’s reputation. Things get even more ‘complicated’ when Lady Susan’s young daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) pays a surprise visit.
“Love & Friendship” does a remarkable job of taking a Jane Austen period drama and lacing it with Whit Stillman’s signature snappy dialogue. The costumes, the settings, and even the characters seem pulled straight from the 18th century. More importantly Stillman doesn’t disturb or shy away from the traditional Jane Austen formula. He actually embraces it and looks at it from a variety of perspectives. The results are hilarious, lively, and surprisingly fresh.
For many the biggest revelation will be Kate Beckinsale who relays every ounce of Lady Susan’s physical beauty and self-serving venom with mesmerizing precision. Armed with the character’s razor-sharp deceptive tongue, Beckinsale cuts through every male she encounters but does so with a heartless grace. Her selfish callousness towards others is most clearly seen in her moments with her one friend and confidant Alicia (Chloë Sevigny). Yet despite her character’s toxicity, Beckinsale makes Lady Susan a captivating force.
Placed around Lady Susan are a host of fun supporting characters, each portrayed through some period-perfect performances. Xavier Samuel makes quite the turn from his “Twilight” days and the accomplished Stephen Frey adds a little more weight to the cast. Sevigny is a nice fit as Lady Susan’s crony and Greenwell is equally good as the sister-in-law caught in an unwinnable situation. But Tom Bennett is the real scene stealer. He plays Sir James Martin, an extremely wealthy, well-meaning suitor who also happens to be a blithering idiot. Bennett is given the broadest comedy but the small hysterical bursts we get from him fit in nicely.
It’s safe to say that “Love & Friendship” offers a very unique take on Jane Austen’s work while at the same time feeling right at home in the author’s written world. Whit Stillman’s latest has the appearance of a stiff, snooty, blue-blooded time piece. But wrapped within its opulent gowns, neo-classical furnishings, and stately manors is one of the year’s funniest movies and another home run for this gifted filmmaker.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS