Love & Friendship
Directed by: Whit Stillman.
Written by: Whit Stillman based on the novella Lady Susan by Jane Austen.
Starring: Kate Beckinsale (Lady Susan Vernon), Xavier Samuel (Reginald DeCourcy), Morfydd Clark (Frederica Vernon), Tom Bennett (Sir James Martin), Chloë Sevigny (Alicia Johnson), Emma Greenwell (Catherine DeCourcy Vernon), Justin Edwards (Charles Vernon), Stephen Fry (Mr. Johnson), Jemma Redgrave (Lady DeCourcy), James Fleet (Sir Reginald DeCourcy), Jenn Murray (Lady Lucy Manwaring), Lochlann O'Mearáin (Lord Manwaring), Kelly Campbell (Mrs. Cross), Conor MacNeill (The Young Curate).
The best book to screen adaptations are the ones in which it seems like both the novel and the film are meeting each other halfway – that even if it isn’t possible, that the author of the novel was writing it specifically for this filmmaker to tackle it, and turn it into a movie. I’m thinking of adaptations like Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997), where although he changed a lot of Elmore Leonard’s novel, really does seem like a merger between two of the best writers of dialogue out there. Or the Coen Brothers No Country for Old Men (2007), which is nowhere near Cormac McCarthy’s best novel, although it feels like it was written for the Coens – it’s more heavy on plot and character, and less on McCarthy’s tough to parse prose. Both of those now feel like marriages that were inevitable – and so to does Whit Stillman adapting Jane Austen. Stillman took an unfinished novella instead of one of Austen’s longer, more famous (and celebrated) novels – and yet, that’s the right choice for Stillman. He is not a director who excels at – or even seems to give a damn about – plot. He’s at his best when his characters are simply sitting around, shooting the shit with each other – especially when those characters are highly educated and pretentious, who are basically saying stupid things, in ways that are designed to make themselves seem smart. Had Stillman chose to adapt Sense & Sensibility or Pride & Prejudice, or another Austen novel, he may have been stuck doing what other directors have had to do – focus on the complicated plots, or who is in love with whom, who hates whom, and why, and then why that all changes. Instead, by choosing Lady Susan, and turning it into Love & Friendship, Stillman doesn’t have to worry about all that. There’s barely a plot in this film, and what there is, doesn’t matter. This makes Love & Friendship little more than an enjoyable trifle – but when trifle is this enjoyable, who could possibly complain?
The film stars Kate Beckinsale, giving the type of performance she does once every five years or so, that reminds just how great she can be in the right role – and simultaneously remind you of how infrequently she gets to do it. She is so jaw-dropping beautiful, that it seems like most directors want her to do little else except look jaw droppingly beautiful (what has the Underworld franchise been really, except an excuse to dress Beckinsale in skintight leather every couple of years). In something like Love & Friendship, Stillman (who cast in The Last Days of Disco in 1998 – another one of her great roles) writes a brilliant role for her. She’s at the center of most of the scenes in the movie – she is the widow of a rich man, now in a precarious financial situation, and trying to snag a rich husband for daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark), and herself, while also carrying on an affair with an already married, rich man herself. That affair blowing up has made her pick up, and move into with her brother-in-law Charles (Justin Edwards) and his wife Catherine (Emma Greenwall) – even though Lady Susan had tried to get him to call off their wedding. The man he wants her daughter to marry is Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), who, to put it mildly, an idiot – but he’s such a jolly idiot, you cannot possibly hate him – unless, of course, you’re being pushed into marriage with him. Lady Susan has her eyes set on Catherine’s brother, Reginald (Xavier Samuel) – a young man, of good breeding, who has a catalogue of expressions to make whenever someone says something stupid that rivals John Krasinski on The Office. Lady Susan is shameless in her flirting, and her scheming, but she gets away with it all, in part, because everyone else is too polite to say anything about it to her face. It seems like no one really likes Lady Susan – aside from her friend, Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny, an American who doesn’t want to get sent back Connecticut by her husband – Stephen Frye), and the various men who are in love with her. Behind her back, everyone insults Lady Susan – but to her face, they are polite – so polite in fact that none of them will even call her out for her own rudeness.
The movie moves quickly through it 90 minute plot, where nothing of any real significance happens – and what does, you can probably see coming. This isn’t an Edith Wharton adaptation after all, so things are going to work out for the central characters – which of course they do, and everyone ends up with precisely the partner that will suit them best – except for that poor woman, who won’t stop complaining about her marriage that ended weeks ago. How shameless!
Beckinsale is the star of the show here – and her Lady Susan is such a force of nature, and gets all the best lines, that to be honest, no one else really has a chance to keep up with her. The lone exception is Tom Bennett as Sir James, who somehow finds a way to extend every conversation much longer than he should – and even if he’s proven wrong, he just keeps right on talking. In real life, this may be annoying as hell – in the movie, it’s hilarious.
Stillman is still thought of as a better writer than director – and Love & Friendship won’t much change that – the dialogue calls so much more attention to itself than the visuals. But, Stillman is a fine visual director as well, and he seems to have an instinct for camera placement – the best way to get two laughs out of his best lines – the line itself, and the reaction it inspires. The film is a definite improvement on Damsels in Distress (2011), which was his first in 13 years at that point (many love that film – I did not, I found it too mannered and stilted). This, though, is a return to form – a Stillman film that stands alongside Metropolitan, Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco – and an Austen adaptation that stands alongside the best of her work onscreen. When you can say all of that, does it matter if the film ends up being completely superfluous?