Love & Friendship
Jane Austen anti-romance adds the wit of a modern sophisticate
Love & Friendship (2016)
Directed by Whit Stillman
Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Chloë Sevigny, Xavier Samuel
Whit Stillman, meet Jane Austen. Jane Austen, meet Whit Stillman. Yeah, it’s kind of astonishing that it’s taken so long for these two creative minds to cross paths. Mr. Stillman’s short but rigidly consistent resume of films (Metropolitan, Barcelona, The Last Days of Disco, Damsels in Distress) is filled entirely with “comedy of manners” stories about well-spoken, upper-crust socialites having long conversations about love, friendship and high fashion. Throw those people in some Empire-waisted ball gowns and you’ve got yourself a Jane Austen novel. So it’s not much of a surprise to see the obviously literate Mr. Stillman digging deep into the Austen library, pulling out an obscure epistolary novella (originally titled Lady Susan) and infusing it with the sort of dry collegiate wit that has gotten Stillman dubbed “the WASPy Woody Allen.”
Our main focus here is the fashionably widowed Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale, getting a much better acting workout than the average Underworld film affords her). Having been booted from yet another English countryside estate where she may or may not have been having a full-blown affair with someone else’s husband, Lady Susan ends up at the doorstep of her somewhat estranged in-laws.
Lady Susan is a magnificently selfish, self-aware manipulator, desperate to seduce her way back into high society. Most of Austen’s novels deal in one way or another with the topic of marriage. But this rather caustic comedy has a lot to say about the tenuous position of women circa 1800. Back then, the institution of marriage had a lot less to do with love and a lot more to do with money. On the edge of penury following her husband’s death, Lady Susan explains it to her sensitive daughter rather sensibly: “We don’t live, we visit.”
Arriving at the doorstep of Charles and Catherine Vernon for a hopefully extended visit, it’s clear that Lady Susan is running out of friends on which to impose. She’s already been banned from the home of her best friend, the magnificently catty Alicia Johnson (Chloë Sevigny), an American trophy wife whose dyspeptic husband (Stephen Fry in a great cameo) has taken a particular dislike to the gossip-attracting Lady Susan.
Unfortunately for our Regency-period couch-surfer, sis-in-law Catherine DeCourcy Vernon (Emma Greenwell from “Shameless”) sees right through Lady Susan and begs her husband to give the estatecrasher the bum’s rush. Unfortunately for the lady of the house, her younger brother, hunky Reginald DeCourcy (The Twilight Saga: Eclipse’s Xavier Samuel), takes a particular liking to Susan. Her eyes set upon a new sugardaddy, Susan does her utmost to ensnare Mr. DeCourcy.
Lady Susan’s plans are derailed, however, when her shy, shellshocked daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) shows up at the Vernon estate, having run away from the horrid boarding school in which mom stashed her. (It’s hard to land a husband with a full-grown daughter in tow.) Realizing Frederica is a much better match for Reginald in age and temperament, Lady Susan schemes to marry her off to the well-meaning but entirely doltish Sir James Martin (British TV actor Tom Bennett in one of the film’s funniest roles).
It all sounds like a complicated roundelay of the titular topics. And it is. Keeping the various lords and ladies in order is an admittedly difficult task. But Stillman has some self-effacing fun with the antiquated source material, flashing brief character bios on screen by way of introduction, much like in the beginning of a 18th-century novel. At one point he even mocks the story’s origins as an epistolary tale by having Catherine’s parents try to read a letter home from her—only to give up at the sheer wordiness of it all. Corsets aside, this is anything but a stuffy retelling.
Stillman adds a tongue-in-cheek sheen to Austen’s rather risqué text, making Love & Friendship as surprisingly lively affair. We’ve all sat though an Austen adaptation or two, and frankly there isn’t a lot of life left in the limp, “Whomever shall I marry?” romance of Pride And Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. But the zesty irreverence of Love & Friendship (wisely retitled to play off those other, better known offerings) offers up some hilarious dialogue and some deliciously scandalous behavior on the part of England’s landed gentry. In the end, with the dust settled and the romantic pairings complete, it’s still something of a slim affair. Lady Susan was not a major work, and neither is Love & Friendship. Lightweight and none-too-serious, this historical anti-romance is likely to evaporate on the palate as quickly an amuse bouche. But while it’s in front of you, it’s gorgeous, amusing and way more fun than you’d expect.