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
Damn. I passed on this because I thought it would be really dry, though I didn’t doubt it was probably going to be good, but I wasn’t aware it was really a comedy. Kinda want to see it now . .
And a well-written comedy, at that! Damn!
VERY well-written. The dialogue is the meat of the movie and it is so well done.
Oh man, it is fantastic. I really liked Stillman’s “Damsels in Distress” so I was automatically interested in this one. Turns out I liked it way more than expected. Such whip-smart comedy. It’s framed as a talky, proper Austen adaptation but it doesn’t take long to get sucked in by its sense of humor. And Tom Bennett! Two of the year’s funniest scenes feature that guy!
Nice review. I’ve been meaning to check this movie out.
Thanks Jason. It’s an absolute treat and one of my most pleasant surprises of the year. Hope you can see it soon.
For me, this remains the best film of 2016 that I’ve seen so far which is very little at this point as it’s also the last film I saw in the theaters as I saw it in early June and I’m waiting for that movie to go see in the theaters near me.
I can see why. Absolutely brilliant. And hopefully for many this will be an eye-opening performance from Beckinsale. She is absolutely magnificent.
I wanted to see this because it reunited the two actors and director of Last Days of Disco and I was very surprised at how much I enjoy it. Since I don’t really like these types of period dramas. This was extremely funny
Wasn’t it hilarious? I laughed so many times. The dialogue is so intelligent and genuinely funny. The only broad comedy we get is from Bennett but it is sooo good. Great film.
Now I want to see it!
I hope you get a chance. It’s such a smart witty comedy. Better than expected even for a fan of Stillman. Give it a look!
I so agree! I love this movie and it gave me a new Jane Austen book in a way- or at least one I had never read before. I saw this on the same day I saw X-Men Apocalypse which I hated so I don’t know if that made this even better! Perfection. I loved Chloe and Kate together and Tom Bennett was hilarious
The same day as X-Men? Ha, that is covering both ends of the spectrum, isn’t it? 😀
I was really into this movie. Sat and watched it with my wife (she had never heard of it). We both laughed and giggled from start to finish.
Yeah nobody can say I dont cover all genres!
LOL! So true. It seems like I did something similar a while back but not movies quite as different. The X-Men/Jane Austen double feature just has a funny ring to it! 🙂
Day after I saw Alice Through the Looking Glass so it would have been rough weekend if not for this!!
Nice review! I skipped this in theaters here, but I should probably give it a shot. I’ve never read an Austen book and the only film adaptation I’ve seen is Pride and Prejudice. I suck in that department. lol
I haven’t read a ton of her work either. That certainly doesn’t impact this film though. It’s still so surprisingly smart and funny. And as I said elsewhere it may have my funniest scene of the year. You should definitely give it a look.
I loved the humour in this film, really sharp and cutting. And Kate Beckinsale was phenomenal, wasn’t she?
Soooo good. I think Beckinsale will open a lot of eyes with her performance. The way she handles Stillman’s dialogue is amazing.
I too think that as well. She shows just how talented an actress she is with this shining performance.
Doesn’t hurt that she is absolutely beautiful either! 😄
I think she is both talented and beautiful.
I’ll be the contrarian voice…Beckinsale is great, but I found the film quite boring and stilted. I never believed for a second that this was anything other than actors reading Austen-like prose with no conviction. The line delivery resembles readings from text rather than acting — this is a film when the actors don’t even pretend to pause to think before speaking, they just reel off clever dialogue, because it’s written for them. It’s also stage-bound, and quite predictable. The premise of one smart woman manipulating a large group of fools is set early and never varies. Anyway, I know the film was loved by many, it just did not resonate with me.
I appreciate the comments and perspective. I can absolutely see where this movie may not resonate for some. In fact, I’m a bit surprised that it’s loved as much as it is. Personally I felt Whitman was playing with the stodgy, stilted dialogue. Without the expected ‘properness’ of the dialogue I think the humor would actually suffer. And I felt the entire cast was in on the gag which sold me even more.
Arg! Sigh! I was bored silly. And I love period pieces. (Ruth don’t hate me.) What didn’t I like about it? Kate acted very well, for sure. But I didn’t like her character at all, so it was hard to sympathize or care about the love triangles. I did like the daughter, felt sorry for her. I loved the costumes and the period setting, but the story line, for me, was too weak to engage me fully.
Wow. For some reason I would have guessed you would go for this one. I guessed wrong! 😄
I can see where the movie wouldn’t work if the humor doesn’t resonate with you. I found it very funny. Flippantly deadpan one minute and then brief spurts of broad comedy. I really went for it.
Your rating says so! It was one of those films I usually love and was looking forward to watching for months. I think, perhaps, if Lady Susan had more maternal instincts or conspired with her daughter rather than the American friend from Conn., that might have helped. Oh, well!
I see you enjoyed Magnificent 7 and I’m looking forward to watching that soon. As always, you write nice reviews.
Thanks Cindy. Appreciate the kind words. Mag 7 is a fun movie. Definitely nothing groundbreaking but Fuqua wasn’t really trying to be. Just a well made buddy action flick with some fun performances. And of course Denzel…he’s always good.
Oh no! Bummed you didn’t like this one Cindy. Her character is not the typical *good* lady of other Austen works, but I thought the movie was hilarious!
Glad you love this one Keith. “Sense and Sensibility” (the Ang Lee version) is still my all time fave but I enjoyed this one immensely.
I did love it Ruth. I agree that Lady Susan was pretty despicable. At the same time I found her so intriguing and at times hilarious. And Bennett… Oh my gosh!
I think it’s refreshing to see a lady behaving badly in an Austen adaptation! Bennett is such a scene stealer! “Tiny green balls” mwahahaha! I wish the young male lead were more interesting though, he’s no PPZ’s Col. Darcy 😉
He’s not a Darcy but for some reason I felt his simple, low-key personality fit well. It made him an easy target for Lady Susan. At least initially.
That’s true, he’s definitely no match for the sly Lady Susan!
And it didn’t hurt that …ahem… Kate Beckinsale is so gorgeous…ahem
We agree on the Ang Lee version!
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Glad you liked this – I really enjoyed it, and I’m not a huge period drama fan. Beckinsale is such good fun, and like you say Bennett is the scene-stealer. I was in stitches during some of his scenes. I enjoy Stillman’s work a lot, he’s a great writer.
Really liked it Stu, more so than expected. Agree with every point you made. I would love for this picture to open up more opportunities for Beckinsale. She lights it up here.
I hope it does! The other thing about it is that all the things you ‘expect’ to work in a period drama – costume, location, set design, etc. – well, all that’s in place and looks good too.
Exactly. In my first draft of the review I had actually written that this film is 100% Austen period drama and at the same time 100% Whit Stillman comedy. I wasn’t sure if it made much sense so I ended up rewriting it. But I get the sense you understand what I meant by that.
Yup – perfectly understood!
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