There’s a question about cinematic adaptations, sequels, and remakes that I’ve finally learned to stop asking: “Do we really need another movie version of a Shakespeare play?” or “How many Jane Austen movies can they possibly make?” I’ve stopped asking, because it’s the wrong question. Aside from purely economically driven choices in matters of art, which should always be open to harsh scrutiny, there are many reasons a filmmaker might choose to revisit well-worn source material. The right approach is to look at each film in its own right and ask, “Does this movie do something new and fresh?” Writer-director Whit Stillman’s Love and Friendship, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s comedic novella Lady Susan, certainly does.
The most engaging thing about Love and Friendship is its biting sense of humor. Stillman borrowed the title of his film from another work by Austen, and the droll juxtaposition of the title with the details of the plot perfectly symbolize the kind of humor that Stillman successfully achieves. The story focuses on the recently widowed Lady Susan Vernon. As many characters in Austen’s novels know, a woman’s place in Victorian society was tragically dependent on finding a proper suitor and marrying him. Cynically abandoning the Love of the title, Lady Susan schemes with great comedic effect to secure financial stability for both herself and her daughter, Frederica, by finding potential husbands for the pair of them.
That leaves Friendship, or, similarly, the lack thereof. Lady Susan is beset on all sides by the members of polite society who are scandalized by the rumors of her behavior, not the least of which is her carnal relationship with the married Lord Manwaring. Lady Susan’s only real friend is the American Alicia Johnson. Their friendship is under constant threat, though, by Alicia’s husband. Mr. Johnson finds Susan so detestable that he threatens to relocate to Connecticut if she continues to consort with the widow.
After fleeing the estate of Lord Manwaring, Susan arrives unannounced at Churchill, the estate of her brother-in-law Charles and sister-in-law Catherine, and proceeds to insinuate herself into their social circle. Labyrinthine aristocratic machinations aside, the real wit and charm of Love and Friendship rests with the razor sharp dialog and excellently crafted performances. Lady Susan’s comparison of the newly formed United States to a petulant child is particularly funny. Her skill at avoiding an unwanted expense is also rather amusing. Upon arrival at Churchill, Lady Susan has an impoverished companion in tow, whom, she assures her hosts, enjoys the mere distraction of packing and unpacking the widow’s luggage. No need to pay the poor woman since, as Lady Susan states, “There’s a friendship involved, I’m sure the paying of wages would be offensive to us both.”
Kate Beckinsale is radiant as Lady Susan. The character is, quite frankly, a scoundrel, but Beckinsale makes her a completely irresistible one. The charisma she summons is disarming, to the point of inducing laughter in the audience when she suggests that the death of Alicia’s husband would be great luck for their friendship.
The performance by actor Tom Bennett, on the other hand, strikes a false note. He plays Sir James Martin, a dimwit who desperately wishes to marry Susan’s daughter, Frederica, despite her utter disinterest in him. Granted, Sir Martin is written as farcically stupid – he marvels at the “tiny green balls” on his plate during a dinner at Churchill, not knowing what peas are – but Bennett operates on a level that completely disconnects from the rest of the film. He is a late 18th century English gentleman by way of Ricky Gervais’ David Brent from The Office BBC sitcom. I make the comparison because Bennett’s next role is in the film David Brent: Life on the Road, a continuation of that iconic character by Gervais. Perhaps Bennett worked on that project before filming his scenes for Love and Friendship, and he was unconsciously influenced by Gervais?
That small distraction notwithstanding, director Whit Stillman shows a flair for detailed period filmmaking. He and cinematographer Richard Van Oosterhout collaborated to make 1790s Britain dazzlingly beautiful. The period costumes, sets, and horse-drawn carriages are likewise magnificently realized. Stillman took on the additional challenge of adapting the original novel’s epistolary nature, expertly weaving the letters and diary entries into the movie’s dialogue. There are moments in Love and Friendship where this is obvious. The way some of the speeches are written sound as if they come straight from a letter. Hearing two characters talk to each other this way creates a unique cinematic experience, like nothing I’ve quite heard before in a movie.
Stillman is very highly regarded in indie film circles, and I’m sad to say this is the first opportunity I’ve had to catch up with his work. His reputation is that of a WASPy Woody Allen (although his own output is as sparse as Allen’s is prolific), focusing on the foibles of the privileged class in comedies of manners like Metropolitan, The Last Days of Disco, and Damsels in Distress. If those films are half as entertaining as Love and Friendship, I’ll relish the opportunity to explore his back catalog.
Why it got 4 stars:
- Simply put, Love and Friendship is delightful. The comedy is understated but effective, the story is engaging and moves along at a brisk pace.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- There are quite a few characters to meet, and Stillman tries his best to introduce them all as economically as he can, but his method is the clumsiest thing about the movie. Each character stands as if they are having a portrait made as text appears on the screen giving their name and position in society. These happen so quickly, and there are so many within the first few minutes of the movie that my head was swimming trying to keep up. Once the story started moving forward, and I was able to get my bearings, knowing who was who wasn't a problem, though.
- Stephen Fry fans take note: The actor pops up in a very small cameo role as Mr. Johnson, the long-suffering husband of American Alicia Johnson, played by Chloë Sevigny.