Lively, delightful, sprightly, and downright hysterical, Love & Friendship is a tart screwball comedy of manners; a crisp romantic treat; and a warm, fizzy concoction of Oscar Wilde and Downton Abbey. Deft, accessible, and calibrated with craft and cunning, it’s sly, wicked fun served with sides of mischievous looks and bewitching retorts.
Set in the 1790s, Love & Friendship is based on Jane Austen’s epistolary novel Lady Susan, first published in 1871. It tells the story of the widowed Lady Susan Vernon, who seeks refuge at her in-laws’ estate while attempting to find husbands for herself and her daughter, Frederica, in the form of the dashing Reginald DeCourcy and the doltish Sir James Martin.
Kate Beckinsale is splendid as the scandalous Lady Susan, “the most accomplished flirt in all England”, a “fiend” with “an uncanny understanding of men’s natures”. She’s a conniving, manipulative troublemaker that is thrilling to observe as she goes about her machinations (“one’s plight”, as she puts it, “is one’s opportunity”). It might be the performance of Beckingsale’s career, and certainly one that reminds us of the talent long since forgotten, mired as it was in monster movies, Adam Sandler vehicles, and the Underworld series. She’s diabolical, sublime, charming, and utterly captivating.
The virtually unknown Tom Bennett is a scene-stealing hoot as Martin, an unaware, ridiculous man unaware of the depths of his ridiculousness; the film crackles with pleasurable theatrics whenever he enters the room, and especially in a memorable introduction to Churchill. The two steal much of the thunder from the fantastic supporting cast, who have little to do individually, but each is good-natured about their contribution, and Chloë Sevigny and Stephen Fry are particularly gallant.
A respected author for more than two centuries, Austen released six major novels during her short lifetime, all of which have become classic works of literature and most of which have fared remarkably well when transposed to the screen (although Pride and Prejudice, her most acclaimed work, did better on 1990s television than in Joe Wright’s hands). Nevertheless, period dramas often suffer from limitations and range from the exceptional An Education to the failed attempt at tackling Tolstoy in Anna Karenina.
Love & Friendship (a rather drab description for such a crisp creation) is writer-director Whit Stillman’s fifth feature, and only his second since 1998 after 2011’s Damsels in Distress. It’s also his first adaptation, and although he has developed a reputation for an original style and voice, his artistic marriage with Austen unlocks a vast repertoire, or perhaps frees him up to use it. It’s his finest film yet.
A crime caper masquerading as a comedy, Love & Friendship lacks the complexity of a lead character like Mia Williams in Fish Tank, and it’s not as emotionally moving as Atonement or as grandly romantic as Bright Star. Yet Stillman more than compensates with vicious insight, brisk pacing, beautiful costumes, and tight camera control devoid of flourish. It’s cleverly designed to push the droll, dry humour and witty repartee to the forefront.
A strong screenplay may seem both essential and inevitable due to the source material, but either way, Stillman does not disappoint: his bristling script is nearly impeccable, filled with ferocious dialogue that re-situates lines from the 2009 British political comedy classic In the Loop in the early 18th century (Susan describes her best friend’s husband as “too old to be governable, too young to die”).
If it’s not the best Austen adaptation ever (that title may still go to Ang Lee’s serendipitous Sense and Sensibility from 1995), Love & Friendship is likely the purest and least sentimental, and definitely top-notch Stillman: a vivacious verbal sparring match in which the faux-heroine wields a rapier while her rivals are stuck with wooden sticks. Be hopeful Susan doesn’t visit your house next.