Love & Friendship (2016)
Written & Directed by Whit Stillman
Whit Stillman has made a career of writing and directing comedy of manners films, so it feels like an inevitable match to have him adapt one of Jane Austen’s novels. The book is Lady Susan, a lesser known tome, and Stillman strips away the romantic notions associated with Austen and focuses in on the social manipulation and interactions. In movies like Metropolitan and The Last Days of Disco, Stillman spends large chunks of times on characters in conversation, and these exchanges are packed with wit and suspense. You may find yourself unsteady in the opening scenes, but once you get your footing and see the flow of the dialogue, you cannot help but find yourself cracking up.
Lady Susan Vernon is a widow with a sixteen-year-old daughter, Frederica, who she’s interested in getting married off. Lady Susan reasons if the two of them can find husbands, they can be financially secure for the foreseeable future. She ends up at Churchill to spend some time with her brother-in-law and his wife and children. The wife, Catherine, warns her brother Reginald of Susan’s reputation as a notorious flirt and penchant for seducing men for her gain. Reginald gets to know Susan and thinks otherwise. Frederica gets kicked out of school and followed to Churchill by her unwanted suitor Sir James Martin. With all these people in one place, the romantic entanglements get complicated, yet somehow Lady Susan remains in control no matter who else makes moves.
Kate Beckinsale plays Lady Susan, and it feels like a role that is absolute perfection for her. She never breaks a sweat, even when she’s taken two lovers and is attempting to keep one of them in the dark. When her ruse is discovered, she never sheds a tear or bats an eyelash but aggressively ends the relationship with the intent to make the spurned man desire her even more. She is such a calm and collected character, even though she’s faced with very probably destitution as an unmarried woman in this period. There is a sense of bravado with Lady Susan who has reasoned that by being brazen about her lifestyle and needs it will stop people in their tracks because they expect a certain decorum and ritual of behavior to be followed.
I am admittedly not a fan of the little Austen I’ve read, and this has me wanting Stillman to direct more of her work. He brings out a comedy on the level of something like Arrested Development at it’s best, understanding that it is gratifying to laugh at daft upper-class people. There are strange little jokes peppered throughout, for example, an ongoing conversation about no one except Lady Susan knowing who King Solomon from the Bible is. The punchline comes in the third act when Sir Charles, Lady Susan’s brother in law name drops Solomon when droning on.
There’s another refrain about which commandment is the fourth one; Lady Susan tells her daughter it is “Honor thy father and mother” in a scene where she is attempting to guilt Frederica. Later, the young woman asks the parson about the fourth commandment, and he begins quoting a completely different one. Even later, during a party conversation, we find the parson engaging a group of uninterested people in a discussion of the commandments. These little conversations and callbacks create a momentum of laughs that keep you wanting to see how the writer further complicates the strands of ideas and dialogue. Love & Friendship is a perfect film for lovers of Austen and even those who don’t have a penchant for her writing. It contains enough modern sensibilities without losing the authenticity of the period.