by Philip Price
From the outset of director Whit Stillman's Jane Austen adaptation, “Love & Friendship,” it is apparent that this is unlike any Austen adaptation one has seen before and probably unlike any film one has seen set in the Georgian era as well. Joel Coen has said, and the sentiment has been repeated and discussed many times, that directing is more or less about managing tone and it is in this aspect that Stillman more than excels here by giving this distinguished era in British history a tinge of the sardonic. The Georgian era is most prominent for the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution in Britain and how such changes brought about more tension between the social classes. “Love & Friendship” more or less capitalizes on such anxiety by putting our protagonist in a transitional stage between losing a wealthy husband and finding another suitor who might allow her to live out the rest of her days in comfort. This protagonist is the titular character of Austen's 1871 novella, Lady Susan, who has a duplicitous personality and a keen understanding of man's nature that makes such a transition all the more entertaining. And this is kind of the crux that allows for Stillman's latest venture to stand out in the way that it does as not only is it unlike any film one has ever seen set in this era or a similar one, but that it deals in its subject matter not as a “Pride & Prejudice” adaptation would, but rather with a tone that is sometimes screwy and a little eccentric, but always hilarious and maybe even more importantly-frequently impulsive. It can't help but to seem that films set during a time period such as this are met with preconceived notions that carry negative connotations by today's younger audiences, but “Downton Abbey” (though I haven't seen a single episode) has seemingly bucked that trend to a certain degree and it only seems Stillman has pushed these notions even further by creating a film of Victorian-like structure and style that resonates a certain freshness one would never expect from such material. I cannot emphasize enough how simply delightful “Love & Friendship” is if not for how surprisingly fun it is, but for the career best performance delivered by Kate Beckinsale.
Set specifically is 1790 (four years before it is believed Austen actually penned the novella) the story follows the beautiful, but widowed Lady Susan Vernon (Beckinsale) as she seeks a new husband for herself and one for rather reluctant debutante daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark). Lady Susan comes to stay at the estate of her in-laws, brother to her late husband Charles (Justin Edwards) and his wealthy wife Catherine (Emma Greenwell), as she plans to wait out some colorful rumors circulating through polite society about her many dalliances, most specifically with the married Lord Manwaring (Lochlann O'Mearáin). While there, she begins something of a relationship with Catherine's younger, handsome brother Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel). As the DeCourcy family name is well-known and well-respected throughout much of London and its surrounding country estates Lady Susan sees the opportunity as a fine one, especially considering Reginald's young age-only one of the ways in which Lady Susan subverts the standards of the romantic novels produced during this time period. Of course, these among other factors are the reasons Reginald is smitten with her and he and Catherine's parents, Sir Reginald DeCourcy (James Fleet) and Lady DeCourcy (Jemma Redgrave), despise the thought of Lady Susan courting much less wedding their son. While at Charles and Catherine's "decidedly boring" estate known as Churchill Lady Susan runs into more obstacles than anticipated when Frederica runs away from school and is returned to her mother's care in the midst of this transition from widow to seasoned gold digger. Frederica is set to be married to the very wealthy but very simple Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett) despite the fact she doesn't love him. When Sir James also shows up at Churchill things are only complicated further, pushing the necessary schemes of Lady Susan to another level as well as pushing the truth of her intentions that much closer to being exposed.
If one has seen or read any story taking place in a similar time period as this than one is privy to the elegant and exquisite way in which everyone speaks, but it is the facet of such derisive and, to sound extremely British, cheeky sentiments being conveyed in such exquisite language that makes what some would consider boring based solely on the poster so damn appealing. Though it becomes clear through the way supporting characters speak of her that Lady Susan is known for being deceitful and more an "ornament to society," based on her beauty than any kind of contributing individual it seems she is actually much worse than people give her credit for. As stated prior, Lady Susan is a complete subversion of what was expected from the typical heroine in 19th century literature. Not only are many of her suitors significantly younger and not only is she searching out the best possible candidate for a new husband while maintaining a relationship with a married man, but believe it or not she is as intelligent as she is beautiful, she is witty beyond measure, and is a complete manipulator and schemer operating on immoral and rather shameless terms. While the polite society of the time dictates that such selfish and "indecent" truths be kept to one's self the story gets around as much by pairing Lady Susan with the like-minded Alicia Johnson (Chloë Sevigny). Alicia is an American who is in a loveless marriage with the agreeable Mr. Johnson (Stephen Fry). Lady Susan confides in Alicia and Alicia finds delight in hearing of and making suggestions for Lady Susan's manipulative plans. More than the undermining of such character tropes though, “Love & Friendship” specifically is elevated by the performance of Beckinsale as its central character. As Lady Susan, Beckinsale possesses a charm and a comedic timing that we haven't seen before or haven't seen in some time. With her legacy up to this point firmly planted in the silly, but sometimes watchable Underworld movies helmed by her husband Len Wiseman the actress has officially become much more than that with her turn here. To hear Beckinsale so skillfully spout opinions on "facts being horrid things," or how, "having children is our fondest wish yet they become our cutest critics," is refreshing in a way that can't necessarily be described.
Though Beckinsale and her Lady Susan are undoubtedly the stars of the show there is plenty more to love about Stillman's sense of biting humor and the way in which he expresses that necessary tone to make such material all the more unique and intriguing. From the opening moments in which Stillman chooses to present us with the somewhat complicated roster of characters and how they each intertwine there is a clear style that is defined through which he remains consistent. Stillman conveys this tone further by keeping the shots very static and dry so as to seemingly match the humor. Very rarely do we see any movement early in the film and yet, as the tensions rise within the context of the story, so does the movement of the camera to that of tracking, obviously planned shots that deliver the audience a better sense of confusion and giddy enthusiasm. This only adds to the perfect pacing of the piece that is complimented by a swift and decisive 90-minute runtime. This temperament of course matches many of the characters well due to the fact the large disposition of the time was to operate more on logic than the impulses that make life and, not coincidentally, this film so exciting. And then there are those supporting characters that are so very delicious as to almost steal the show. We get to know, shortly, in the beginning a Mrs. Cross (Kelly Campbell) who is more or less a maid to Lady Susan despite the fact she has no money and whom Lady Susan declares that because they are friends it would be "offensive to exchange wages". In the process of Mrs. Cross fulfilling her duties to Lady Susan she is forced to listen to Susan's blunt complaints and more or less re-states each of her points in hysterically dry fashion. A real highlight. Still, the real show-stopper is Bennett who, as the dense Sir James, steals not one, not two, but three scenes that have him demonstrating a penchant for delivering pure comedic bliss whether the topic be agriculture or the Ten Commandments. His timing is perfection and I can't wait to see what more he is offered after this break-out as he is truly phenomenal. Fittingly, the conclusion of the narrative comes to rely on the characters of Lady Susan and Sir James and a dynamic we know cannot continue forever, but is a fitting commentary on a society that would prefer to be polite than aware and the two people who rather perfectly encapsulate either end of that spectrum.