Director/Screenplay: Whit Stillman
Starring: Kate Beckinsale, Chloe Sevigny, Xavier Samuel, Stephen Fry.
Country: Ireland, USA
BBFC Certification: U
Duration: 93 mins
Based on Jane Austen’s less well-known novella, Love & Friendship follows the eponymous Lady Susan as she charms and schemes her way through 1790s English society. With sumptuous costumes, gorgeous sets and that classic razor sharp wit, much of Love & Friendship’s humour comes from the way it embraces our favourite Austen movie tropes. However, plot comes second to dialogue, and the anti-heroine ends up straying too close to unlikeable territory.
Recently widowed Lady Susan is expelled from an impressive estate after inappropriate relations with the married Lord Manwaring. Determined to restore the fortunes of herself and her timid daughter Frederica, she relocates to her sister’s estate, where her reluctantly accommodating in-laws quickly find her running the show. Through the twists and turns of the drama that follows Lady Susan almost always remains on top, the men around her powerless to resist her charms (and her manipulation of social expectations). With the script managing to bring fast-paced tension to a film with few action scenes, all storylines converge to an ending that has the audience laughing in disbelief, or even cackling in delight.
Billed as a ‘period comedy’, the star of this film is the dialogue. Stillman’s screenplay is a constant stream of eloquent wit, Lady Susan’s acerbic observations sometimes all too relevant to the absurdities of our own society. I’d never thought of Jane Austen as a precursor to Oscar Wilde, but with Lady Susan being slightly more cynical than Austen’s usual heroines, their similarity is revealed. But the comedy of film is not entirely down to Austen; the self-awareness of Love & Friendship is what makes it stand out, from the introductory character profiles accompanied by drawing room piano music to the incredible dresses and costumes which clearly took a chunk of the budget. The whole film is a wink and a nudge to the overwhelming number of similar Austen movies, but it rejoices in the tropes rather than mocking them.
This warmth, however, is not to be found in the main character. While I enjoyed the film as I enjoy watching House of Cards, vicariously revelling in the the way the world moves around her, Lady Susan’s disregard for the feelings of others eventually begins to grate. With her sister, daughter and devoted but misguided suitor being presented as sweet, likeable characters, Susan appears heartless, her only regard for her equally duplicitous best friend (played by Chloe Savigny in one of the best performances of the film). On reflection, I suppose, you can’t be too hard on her – when survival is dependant on marrying well, it’s unrealistic to expect all of Austen’s sharply intelligent characters to be driven by love.
The film is perfectly cast, with Kate Beckinsale wrapping the audience around her little finger as tightly as the suitors she manipulates. Unlike Austen’s more well known works, these characters are single-layered, archetypal vehicles for her wry observations and humour, and by embracing that the cast deliver a fast-paced hilarious film which doesn’t have to spend time on character development. The lack of plot however is a different story; the film feels like a series of events, which eventually come to an end without the cathartic pay-off of other Austen films.
Despite this, Love & Friendship manages to achieve something generally thought to be impossible – a Jane Austen adaptation with an original twist. It is genuinely funny, on both textual and meta levels, and although not particularly deep it is nevertheless enjoyable.
Love & Friendship is out on DVD and Blu-ray on September 26th. It also includes a Behind-the-Scenes Featurette.