Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Chloë Sevigny, Xavier Samuel, Emma Greenwell, Morfydd Clark, James Fleet, Jemma Redgrave, Tom Bennett, Justin Edwards, Stephen Fry
Director: Whit Stillman
Writer: Whit Stillman
In a year that has brought us Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Stillman’s new film offers an entirely different satirical take on Jane Austen. Love & Friendship meticulously replicates the Jane Austen style from the look to the tone to the dialogue. If Stillman had set out to simply make a straight adaptation of one of her novels I have no doubt that he would have succeeded. What sets Love & Friendship apart is that it treats its story, characters and setting with an acute self-awareness. There is a strong yet subtle degree of irony and parody as this film depicts the political nature of these Georgian relationships. As the scheming, duplicity and guile driving these loves and friendships are unfolded and portrayed, one cannot help but laugh at the absurdity of it all. This isn’t to say however that Love & Friendship is a mockery of Austen’s style but rather that it is a tribute.
The film’s star is the widowed Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) who has set out on a mission to find husbands for herself and her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark). She takes up residence at the Churchill estate where she stays with her brother-in-law Charles Vernon (Justin Edwards) and his wife Catherine (Emma Greenwell). There she sets her sights on Catherine’s handsome and eligible younger brother Reginald De Courcy (Xavier Samuel), whom she hopes to seduce for herself. Susan also invites the wealthy but utterly clueless Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett) to stay with the intention of organising a union between him and Frederica. Susan partner in crime throughout this endeavour is Alicia Johnson (Chloë Sevigny), an American lady with a thirst for gossip and deception to rival Susan’s.
Far from being a heroine in the vein of Elizabeth Bennett or Emma Woodhouse, Lady Susan Vernon is a deliciously manipulative and brazenly self-absorbed character who would be right at home in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s School for Scandal. She is incapable of looking at anything beyond her own interests and is positively shameless in her capacity for deceit. As she pursues Reginald, a man who isn’t nearly as smart or assertive as he thinks he is, she deftly wraps him around her little finger as she appeals to his vanity and turns the scandalous stories of her previous affairs into the cruel gossip of slanderers. Beckinsale plays the role with such sophistication, charm and wit that you cannot help but relish her delightfully duplicitous antics. The only other character who even comes close to Susan in terms of entertainment value is Bennett as the stupendously oblivious suitor to Frederica’s affections. As he stumbles, stutters and rambles his way through his musings on advanced agricultural methods or on the Twelve Commandments, he provides this film with its most hilarious highlights.
The film’s take on the Jane Austin mythos works well both as a celebration of the novelist and also as a satire. Love & Friendship looks and feels like classic Austen right down to the costumes, sets and music. There is a clear respect for the writer and her work as Stillman painstakingly recreates the look and feel of the period and adopts her refined style. The film still takes its jabs and includes certain winks to the audience such as the trope of introducing each character by pausing their scenes and allowing them to turn properly towards the camera and nod to the audience in greeting accompanied by a fitting character description. Another amusing scene is when Catherine’s parents set about the task of reading one of their daughter’s letters only to give up halfway through. Each character in this film, save the imbecilic Sir James Martin, is to some extent aware of how silly some of their practices and behaviours are. Part of the joy of this film is watching these characters engage in conversations and confrontations that are exquisitely artful in their ritualistic custom. Every word is methodically calculated to convey the exact form of persuasion, disagreement or deception required while staying true to what is considered proper. It is a practice that is as ridiculous as it is entertaining.
There are a few issues that I have with this film. Some characters such as Sevigny’s Mrs. Johnson are not particularly interesting or funny and the ending felt strangely anticlimactic to me. In terms of style and wit however Love & Friendship succeeds in spades. It is a comedy of manners that adeptly delivers on both the comedy and the manners. Its greatest strength is its dialogue which is sharp, droll and allows its actors to be as showy and elaborate as they please. There is perhaps even a social commentary to be taken away from this film through its depiction of gossip and scandal as an art form. Overall it is a clever and classy comedy that I enjoyed watching and that I believe will be especially pleasing to any fans of Jane Austen.