Whit Stillman’s Jane Austen adaptation Love & Friendship takes a dangerous gamble early doors by setting it’s opening action to Beethoven’s 5th, openly calling to mind its iconic usage in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange; one of the most memorable beginnings in film history. While Stillman’s film uses a more classical interpretation of the piece (and his period setting makes said usage less incongruous), it’s still a ballsy move, one that turns out to be indicative of the confidence displayed throughout.
The source for Love & Friendship is Austen’s novella Lady Susan. Stillman has decided here to use Austen’s working title for the story, as Susans are prevalent in the famed author’s work. He’s also worked diligently to preserve the wit of Austen’s prose, frequently heightening it. As a result he’s delivered a societal romantic comedy that tips deliberate toward the latter. It carves the film out from the pack of adaptations made of Austen’s work over the last couple of decades. Stillman compacts the text rather than expanding it, bringing in a zinger of a film that barely troubles the 90 minute mark.
This same sense of relative claustrophobia extends to the blocking of his actors within the scenes. Any reverence for Kubrick seems like a deliberate southpaw, as Stillman instead cramps multiple characters into ornate rooms that seem barely equipped to contain them, busy as they are with stuff. There is no room for the spacious, glacial ennui of Barry Lyndon here. With proximity relatively restricted, the performers spark off of one another all the more. This is great farce with a pleasing sense of urgency. It doesn’t feel rushed or haphazard – far from it – instead it simply feels bristling with life. That’s a joyous thing when so many period pieces in a similar vein exude stuffy self-importance.
Kate Beckinsale plays recently widowed Lady Susan Vernon; a woman with a somewhat justifiable reputation within police society as an audacious mind and voracious flirt. She is a determined and intelligent woman, and the film charts her joyfully ruthless plotting to secure herself a bright future. Principally it seems as though her prize is the rather eligible Reginald DeCourcy, whom she befriends while staying with her sister-in-law Catherine (Emma Greenwell) at Churchill country estate. With her reputation acting as a hindrance from the outset, Susan conspires with the aid of her American confidant Alicia (Chloe Sevigny), playing out a strategic game hampered by the unexpected arrival of her truant daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark).
There’s plenty more, and Stillman is eager to bring you up to speed, chucking the viewer multiple character introductions from the off (and managing to make even this humorous). While there’s a concern that you’re experiencing a little information overload, it actually allows the viewer to relax into the dialogue instead of juggling who’s-who as the film strides out of the gates.
Beckinsale is something of a revelation here. Following a decade-plus mired in the unholy realms of video game adaptations and unnecessary remakes, she’s taken this opportunity to recast herself as a capable leading actor and wrung it for all it’s worth. Her Lady Susan is rarely if ever visibly shaken, even as events teeter away from her ideal. In a landscape in which ‘strong female character’ often translates as ‘woman who suffers but gets by somehow anyway’, here’s a shining example of a woman who is simply the intellectual superior in nearly every social situation in which she finds herself. The film celebrates this, and Beckinsale nails it.
But Love & Friendship is not solely her show. Indeed this is credibly an ensemble piece, and the other actors gamely carry their share of the load. Xavier Samuel makes DeCourcey more than a fine example of good breeding stock, doing much with little to suggest a fully fledged mind behind a jaw line destined for stardom. Elsewhere, Tom Bennett eats up a lot of scenery as the story’s token fool, Sir James Martin, who has eyes for Frederica, believes there are twelve commandments and hasn’t seen a pea in his life (“tiny green balls!”). Stillman treads carefully here, aware you can have too much of a good thing, pulling Bennett back just when he risks using up all of the oxygen, only to unleash him again after a suitable reprieve.
The story as a whole might seem fancifully light and inconsequential (a further knock-on effect of its source being svelte like the film’s running time), but this is fine comedy masquerading as prestige cinema. Comedy is an undervalued quality in film; something so rarely sustained throughout an entire feature. The balance and wit evidenced here is more consistent than that found in a half-dozen modern examples with a contemporary setting I could name. Stillman has parcelled up for us quite the little treat. Not so much a wolf in sheep’s clothing, rather a crafty, grinning fox. And a rather fantastic one at that.