'Love & Friendship'
There’s nothing more appropriate for summer movie counterprogramming than a film by Whit Stillman. The ’90s indie darling behind ‘Metropolitan‘ and ‘Barcelona‘ specializes in small films driven more by spectacularly witty dialogue and arcane intellectual references than superhero explosions. Actually, I take that back. There is one thing even further removed from a summer blockbuster: a Whit Stillman movie that adapts Jane Austen, complete with costumes, carriages, etc.
Based on the obscure Austen novella ‘Lady Susan’, ‘Love & Friendship’ is a social comedy about a ridiculously manipulative woman who inadvertently does a little good while striving for perfection in self-absorption. In other words, it’s a Stillman movie through and through that just happened to come from a Jane Austen source. That should please viewers too pretentious to enjoy popcorn timewasters but still seeking out some pure entertainment.
A particularly sparkling Kate Beckinsale stars as Lady Susan Vernon, a recent widow who arrives at a wealthy estate seeking charity. Convention would call her the story’s heroine, but her behavior speaks otherwise. Narcissistic, manipulative, vicious and boasting a remarkable skill to dismantle everyone with a well-crafted barb, she’s a bit of a monster – just one remarkably amusing to watch, as is the Whit Stillman way. Lady Susan’s goal is to find husbands for herself and her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark). For herself, she claims sights on the wealthy and handsome Reginald De Courcy (Xavier Samuel). For her daughter, she chooses a classic nincompoop named Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), whom she encourages despite Frederica’s total disinterest. Helping Lady Susan in her dirty dealings is an American friend played by Chloe Sevigny in a delightfully unexpected ‘Last Days of Disco’ reunion for the filmmaker and his co-stars. And with that, let the plotting begin and the sparks fly between the crackling lines of dialogue.
The joys of any Whit Stillman picture come in the witty barbs and painfully awkward human interaction. Not that the characters are in any way aware of the social discomfort they cause. Stillman’s characters are always powerfully intelligent, veraciously verbose and totally self-absorbed, yet completely un-self-aware. In that strange middle ground is where the humor and drama lie.
At times, ‘Love & Friendship’ is a painfully funny movie, with laughs that cause heads to shake in wonderful ways. The cast dig deep into Stillman’s words and deliver the goods. Beckinsale in particular might give the finest performance of her career. She’s a tightly wound monster, always plotting and always seconds away from saying something horrible. Yet there’s such a dismissive casualness to her actions, an unfailing success rate, and an oddly noble demeanor throughout that you can’t help but enjoy the character. (Clearly, the actress cherished every second.) The rest of the cast are as dependably strong as you’d expect from the likes of Stephen Fry and Chloe Sevigny, but the real find is Tom Bennett, so hilariously and excruciatingly embarrassing at all times that he’ll often make you feel physically ill. It’s hard to imagine that there will be a funnier supporting performance this year.
The period setting is of course handled beautifully. This sort of thing is hard to screw up with the right production team in place and Stillman obviously hired the right guys. It’s not a flashy film visually, but it’s as pretty as it needs to be. Based on an unfinished novella published posthumously, it’s not exactly Austen’s most emotionally complex or meticulously plotted work. However, that’s perfect for Stillman, allowing him to focus purely on the type of behavior and dialogue that fascinate him (and overlap with the source material), while inventing his own material to make it work as a feature. The mix authorial voices is perfect. Some who choose only to notice the most friendly and romantic aspects of Austen’s work might be put off by the acid-tongued bitterness running through ‘Love & Friendship’, but Whit Stillman fans will seek out the movie for those exact qualities. That’ll hopefully balance things out. Either way, it’s unlikely that a more bitterly hilarious or wittily worded film will be released this year. For those who enjoy such things, tuck in and enjoy.