As much as it may paint me as a critic charlatan or someone lacking a refined sense of class, I have never had any love for Jane Austen or the numerous adaptations of her work. Already in 2016, I have gone through a total mishandled spin-off of her work in the money grabbing film Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, something I’m sure the author herself would have admonished but I didn’t really dig the original subject matter either. I know its literature blasphemy. I’ve just never been into the frill, corsets and arranged marriages that her stories usual entail. This was my feeling heading into Love & Friendship, a film adapted from Lady Susan, an epistolary novel from Jane Austen.
Working in the film’s favor already was having it helmed by Whit Stillman, a director who has only made a limited amount of movies but one of those is The Last Days of Disco, a personal favorite of mine from the late nineties. That film featured a twenty-five-year-old Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny in the lead roles with a brilliant script from Stillman, about two friends trying to figure life out at the local club. The chemistry between the two is a driving force and Stillman caught my immediate interest. Since then he only made Damsels In Distress in 2010 with Greta Gerwig until now, when he reteams with his “Disco” girls for this screwball period piece.
Love & Friendship is a film based around the Jane Austen character of Lady Susan (Beckinsale) in the 1790s. Newly widowed, she goes to stay with her in-laws, amid vicious rumors about her that may be truer than Susan would lead people to think. Her motivation for leaving her home and housing with people that she seems to loathe is to secure a husband for herself and her daughter, Frederica, to further ensure the lavish lifestyle she is living continues. The main roadblock may be that Lady Susan is fiendishly manipulative and an overly mean spirited individual, but the fact that she is still very much revered has managed to keep her on some even ground thus far.
Susan sets her sights on Reginald DeCourcy, a young, handsome and intelligent suitor that she wants to take for herself, rather than Frederica. For her daughter, she is trying to set up a courting with Sir James Martin, who, for lack of any better term, is a complete buffoon. Believing that all her plans will bear lucrative fruit, Lady Susan confides every detail of her plan to her American friend and confident, Alicia Johnson (Sevigny). Alicia is the only person privy to the information that Lady Susan has been having a secret affair with a married man, Lord Manwaring, a dalliance that may cause her web of deception to crumble.
Wilt Stillman’s approach to this film is what won me over right away, the screwball styling of it being evident from the get go. From the individual title cards introducing each character, setting up their motivations right away, it had the qualities of some of Woody Allen’s more farcical works but put in this aristocratic early time period. It immediately puts you into the light and fun mindset that this film commands, which is punctuated by every brilliant line that Stillman adapts to the screen. Definitely one of my favorite scripts this year, this film will have you chuckling at the witty repertoire that Lady Susan levels at every character in her eye line and makes it obvious why everyone has to steel themselves for an underhanded insult anytime she enters a room.
This film succeeds on the really solid relationship between Beckinsale and Stillman as, arguably, the best work in her career has come from his projects. Love & Friendship is another bright point in the usual action and thriller heavy actress’ career and shows the kind of range she has in a fantastically wordy comedic film. Definitely a film that will fly far under the mainstream moviegoer’s radar, this is a performance that would change the minds of many of Kate Beckinsale’s detractors, as she dominates every scene she’s in. It’s a delight to see her and Chloe Sevigny, though only sharing a few scenes, together again and playing off each other so well again. Love & Friendship is, without a doubt, a complete actor’s treat with dialogue others would do anything to roll off their tongues.
I’m so astounded to have my opinion turned around on the subject of Jane Austen but given the kind of story that it’s based on, a series of letters instead of a straight forward narrative, I can’t say it’s something that has reformed my opinion of what has come before. Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility remain what they are to me but Love & Friendship is the bridge in which I can join in on the celebration of this icon in women’s literature. I think I’m still going to attribute the success of that to Wilt Stillman’s method of attack to the material.
For me, this film is something that will take a couple of viewings to fully drink in all the great lines and jokes that happen in this movie; including a recurring joke about the confusion of whether it’s the ten commandments or twelve, which two are ignorable? Or which order do they even go in? Joining my astoundment over Jane Austen is my shock that a movie like this would chart so high in my favorite films I’ve seen this year, as it’s not one that would usually receive a rave recommendation from me, yet here we are. I think this could appeal to a broad audience, given it has the open minds to give it a chance, and I give it a four and a half out of five.