Movie review: ‘Love & Friendship’ delightful version of Austen classic
The closest writer-director Whit Stillman has come to making a period movie is his 1998 film “The Last Days of Disco,” which was set in early-1980s Manhattan. With “Love & Friendship,” he delivers a real frock flick of a film, using the posthumously published Jane Austen novella “Lady Susan,” which takes place at the end of the 18th century, as his source material.
Rabid Austen fans will know that she wrote a short story called “Love & Friendship,” and might be perplexed to find out that this film has nothing to do with that slight piece. But this “Love & Friendship” is indeed “Lady Susan,” and Stillman has worked delightful wonders with Austen’s very short epistolary book ( I won’t make you Google this; it means the story is told via written letters rather than in linear form.).
Though it’s packed with vibrant and colorful characters who are involved in complex situations, you can either pay strict attention to all of the players or just fall into the rhythm of the piece, and it will be easily understood.
Stillman gives an idea of what’s to come, mood-wise, by kicking things off with amusingly presented opening credits that are choreographed to a sprightly solo harp. But he cuts to the almost baleful sound of drums when the first scene shows someone exiting the Langford Estate, leaving many unhappy faces behind him. The wondrous scenery, combined with sensational costume and production design, caused me to miss out on what music was playing when the action switches to the Churchill Estate, where everyone seems much happier.
But Janeites (the nickname for Austen fans) know that they should never hold their breath when things are going well in Austen’s worlds. The recent widow Lady Susan (an absolutely radiant Kate Beckinsale, who last worked alongside Stillman in “The Last Days of Disco”) has left Langford, where she was, in her words, “happily settled” as a visitor, and is now heading, uninvited, to Churchill for a stay. Her mantra goes something like, “I have no money and no husband.” But she does have a daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark), who she considers a nuisance, and has packed off to a private school.
Susan also has a good friend in London, Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny, her costar in “The Last Days of Disco”), to whom she regularly turns to give and receive advice, but she doesn’t find herself very welcomed at Churchill, the home of her in-laws, the Vernons, who are well aware of certain rumors about her behavior, including her aggressive sexual habits.
Before long, this bitingly satirical comedy of manners has Lady Susan meeting up with her hostess’ dashing and innocent younger brother Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel), on whom she sets her eyes for a possible fling. This is followed by the unwanted arrival of Frederica, who has run away from school, and then by the appearance of Sir James Martin (a hilarious Tom Bennett), who has HIS eyes set on young Frederica, but who is referred to by her as a silly man, and by Reginald as both a fool and a blockhead. Sir James proves both of them right practically every time he opens his mouth, particularly when the script offers up the Stillman creation of an amusing discussion about the Ten Commandments.
Though the film keeps you wondering about who will end up with whom, and isn’t very optimistic about the institution of marriage, it’s all told in good fun. Is Lady Susan just in it for herself, capable of using everyone around her, and carelessly dallying with the well-being of her daughter? Yes. But somehow, Beckinsale keeps her just short of being despicable. Has Frederica fallen for the same man that her mom already has designs on? Could be. But that just adds to even more enjoyment in watching this. Hold on, who’s this fellow Lord Manwaring (Lochlann O’Mearain), the newest arrival from Langford? And what’s his past and present relationship with Lady Susan? Well, things sure do get complicated. The best thing is that Stillman has contributed a perfect additional ending to the one Austen wrote. The Janeites will not complain.
— Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.
“Love & Friendship”
Written and directed by Whit Stillman
With Kate Beckinsale, Chloe Sevigny, Xavier Samuel, Tom Bennett, Morfydd Clark