Movie Review: Love and Friendship
Perfect Match If ever there was a match made in heaven, it is the combination of director Whit Stillman and novelist Jane Austen.Stillman’s lively, energetic and enjoyable adaptation of one of Austen’s lesser known works, Love & Friendship is a masterpiece of filmmaking.
The life and writing of the English novelist have inspired more than 85 feature films and television adaptations thus far. Stillman seems to be the first director who has been able to bring to screen the essential essence of her work: satire, burlesque, irony, parody, caricature, dialogue, realism, and narration used to intelligently examine the manners, affectations, motivations, relationships and behaviour — often peculiar and inexcusable — of English gentry.
Also, he does not make the three mistakes that most, if not all, filmmakers have committed while working with Austen. One, he does not focus on romance at the expense of comedy. He pays the most attention, very wisely, to the interplay of characters and to dialogue.
Two, he does not fumble while trying to balance acuity, entertainment, intelligence, satire, and humor. Finally, he is not afraid to add his own touch to the wonderful prose of Austen. Indeed, he makes it clear that he considers the source material, Austen’s short epistolary novel, Lady Susan, unfinished and dispenses with the original hasty, unfulfilling conclusion in favour of an ending all his own. He transforms incidents from the book into wonderfully lush scenes and brings characters to life with remarkable verve. In Stillman’s film, Austen’s characters appear to be both aware of, and at ease with, their own audacity, silliness and misbehaviour. This adds a subtle intelligence to Love & Friendship that is missing in other Austen adaptations.
Love & Friendship tells the story of the recently widowed Lady Susan Vernon (a wonderful, wonderful Kate Beckinsale), who comes to stay with her in-laws to recover from the scandal caused by her dalliances with the married Lord Manwaring (Lochlann O’MearÃ¡in) and to find a pair of husbands, one for herself and one for her daughter, Frederica Vernon (Morfydd Clark). She has her eye on Reginald De Courcy (Xavier Samuel), the younger brother of her sister-in-law, Catherine Vernon (Emma Greenwell). Very charming and clever, she successfully woos De Courcy but her plans are threatened when her daughter arrives and catches the eye of the handsome young man. Determined to succeed at all cost, Lady Susan engineers the courtship of her daughter by the very rich and much older Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), who, by all standards, is a blithering idiot. The story that follows is a familiar one for Austen readers and needs to be enjoyed less for what transpires and more for how the characters interact; some misbehave flagrantly while others put up with flagrant misbehavior. They chase partners that are obviously wrong for them and ignore ones that are suitable. Rarely has people-watching been as much fun as it is in Love & Friendship.
Stillman’s thoroughly enjoyable film has many strengths — an excellent screenplay, wonderful dialogue (“Children, of course, when they’re small, there’s a sweetness that compensates for the dreadfulness that comes after,” declares Lady Susan at one point in the film), smart scene structure, brilliant performances and first-rate direction — but it belongs to Kate Beckinsale, whose immense talents have never been utilised as well as they have in Love & Friendship.
Cunning, duplicitous, devious and very smart, the titular heroine of Jane Austen’s novel is not easy to like. She is certainly not like Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse or the Dashwood Sisters. Lady Susan is always energetic and resourceful; she is also relentlessly manipulative, conniving and selfish. At once a heroine and a villain, Beckinsale’s Susan enjoys being deceitful and thrives on intrigue, manipulation and scheming. She brings an infectious energy to the role and plays it with remarkable aplomb and verve. And when she turns on her radiant smile, her charm and magnetism become impossible to resist.
Stillman clearly has as much fun directing Beckinsale as she does playing Lady Susan; and, for the viewer, watching her on screen is a sheer pleasure. Famous English writer and theologian, Richard Whately wrote, “[Jane Austen’s] heroines are what one knows women must be, though one never can get them to acknowledge it.”That may well be true for Austen’s other heroines but, in the case of Lady Susan Vernon, one wishes that this is not how women ever are and hopes that they will confirm the same.