It’s Jane Austen, but not quite as we know it. Whit Stillman’s LOVE & FRIENDSHIP adapts one of the titanically influential novelist’s lesser-known and unfinished stories (originally titled LADY SUSAN) and the result is a film that is both delicate and incredibly funny, often in a rather modern manner.
Recently widowed Lady Susan Verson (Kate Beckinsale) stays with her in-laws and lays out her plans for wedding her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) and maintaining her own privileged position in society. Idiot suitors and interested parties come and go, but Lady Susan has been playing this game for a long time, and will stop at nothing to make sure she comes out on top.
In a world where multiple UNDERWORLD movies and a remake of TOTAL RECALL exist, you’d be forgiven for forgetting just how good Kate Beckinsale can be – here she gives Lady Susan presence, relentless determination and razor-sharp wit. She plays society, men and women alike so expertly and is always one step ahead of everyone else in the drawing room in order maintain her self-reliance and comfortable lifestyle. Lady Susan’s show is nearly stolen by adorable idiot Sir James (Tom Bennett), a man rich enough to get away with being a complete moron, who is run circles around by everyone he meets but never quite realises it. He tries, bless him, he appears a good-natured enough soul, and you are laughing with more than at him by the end. The supporting cast of lords and ladies played by talent including Morfydd Clark, James Fleet and Justin Edwards make for a good ensemble who inhabit their characters seamlessly.
As an unfinished Austen, Love & Friendship feels understandably enough like it’s trying out ideas and testing some of the author’s soon-to-be hallmark themes and character archetypes. It’s refreshingly scrappy and unpolished, but it also feels very real. Everyone looks uncomfortable and mannered in their period clothes, not because they’re bad or miscast performers, but because clothes of that period were awkward, restrictive and uncomfortable. This is a slight and undemanding story, but a very watchable and entertaining one all the same.
There are some lovely stylistic details to make this tale distinctive, and to add colour to some of the recurring jokes. The characters in each household hold a pose for the camera (Sir James is so stupid he carries on moving as normal as the people around him pause) and all are introduced with snide captions commenting on their status, age, or respective usefulness. Seeing the handwriting floating and faltering on screen as Sir Reginald (James Fleet) struggles to regale his wife (Jemma Redgrave) with Lady Susan’s correspondence with enough personality to engage her is also an amusing idea.
The scenes with Chloë Sevigny are much less satisfying, with Sevigny’s Alicia simply acting as a sounding board for Lady Susan as she plans her next move. You don’t really get a sense of why they are friends at all really – Lady Susan just shows off and Alicia lets her, not expressing herself or who she is in any real fashion. I don’t really see the point in Stephen Fry being part of this either as he’s usually just in the background of Sevigny’s scenes contributing very little. At least he didn’t pick up any bad habits from SHERLOCK HOLMES and thankfully keeps his trousers on this time.
I will have to see this one again to pick up some of the intricacies of the dialogue, but the performances of the key players throughout still make it a hugely enjoyable watch. Love & Friendship isn’t a swooner, in fact it’s refreshingly pragmatic about relationships and what they amounted to for aristocratic women in the Nineteenth Century. Lady Susan’s means to an end attitude to marriage for herself and her nearest and dearest must have reflected many in her privileged yet limited position. For a brisk and modest film without any real shocking twists or revelations, this is a pleasingly layered and satisfying affair. SSP