Whit Stillman’s 1990 debut, Metropolitan, cemented his reputation as a filmmaker who wittily chronicled the social mores and proprieties of the upper class. While it took more than 25 years for Stillman to adapt Jane Austen, his Love & Friendship, which brings Austen’s novella “Lady Susan” to the screen, was worth the wait.
This period piece is a delicious comedy of manners in which Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) is a widow who is trying to sort out her life and maintain her tarnishing reputation. She pays a visit to Churchill, her sister-in-law, Catherine’s (Emma Greenwell) manor, where she befriends Catherine’s handsome brother, Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel). There is some agreeable flirtation, but the arrival of both Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), who is described as “a bit of a rattle,” (buffoon) and Lady Susan’s eligible daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark), create some issues. Lady Susan is scheming—with the help of her American friend Alicia (Chloe Sevigny)—to set up the wealthy Sir James with her daughter to insure future financial stability. However, Francesca would rather work than marry Sir James, which throws a spanner [wrench] in the works.
Love & Friendship chronicles the manipulations of both the characters and the plot with wit and charm. Lady Susan’s predicament—that of being a social outcast—comes to light as Reginald’s father (James Fleet) and Alicia’s husband (Stephen Fry) both warn their loved ones about the widow. And while Lady Susan feels that she has not acted badly in her scheming, a scene of her dressing down someone she knows reveals just how single-minded she is. How the relationships are resolved is ultimately satisfying because of how well audiences come to know the characters.
Stillman is in his wheelhouse here, carefully scripting every line of the talky dialogue, which the actors milk for maximum effect. Lines about a character’s “sauciness” or “callous idealism” are as revealing as Lady Susan’s claim, “facts are horrid things,” when she is hoisted on her own petard.
The gorgeous sets are architectural porn, while the period costumes are ravishing. The dresses even allow Alicia’s bosoms to literally heave as she assists Lady Susan’s manipulations.
The acting is also top-notch, with Beckinsale in fine form as Lady Susan, who reveals her true nature whenever she must justify her behavior to others. She is a woman who is constantly trying to persuade others, when she would be best to be true to herself. In support, Tom Bennett is a terrific comic foil as the boorish Sir James, while Xavier Samuel cuts an appropriately dashing figure as Reginald.
Love & Friendship is not particularly deep, but it is a fun, entertaining comedy for discerning audiences about the nature of virtue as well as beauty, truth, and goodness.
Love & Friendship opens today in Philly area theaters.
Author: Gary M. Kramer
Gary M. Kramer is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer. He is the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina. Volumes 1 and 2, and teaches seminars at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer.