Love & Friendship: His and Hers, by Josh Long
One of the most enjoyable elements of any Whit Stillman film is his use of quick, clever, erudite dialogue. So I was initially concerned upon learning that his newest film, Love & Friendship, is an adaptation of Jane Austen’s novella Lady Susan. As wonderful a wordsmith as Austen was, would a slavish duty to adaptation hinder Stillman’s distinctive dialogue? Fortunately, Lady Susan is an epistolary (a novel made up of letters, e.g. Dracula or The Screwtape Letters), which is a perfect opportunity for the filmmaker to stay true both to the source material and to his signature style.
The novella’s title character is a recent widow and notorious flirt, played by Kate Beckinsale. Lady Susan’s reputation has spread throughout polite society, and when she seeks a place to stay with her brother-in-law Charles Vernon (Justin Edwards), Charles’ wife Catherine (Emma Greenwell) is non-plussed. Things become complicated as Catherine’s brother Reginald (Xavier Samuel) arrives at their country home. He has come hoping to watch the spectacle he expects Lady Susan will create, but underestimates her charm (read manipulation) and soon finds himself in love with her. Before long, Susan’s teenaged daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) is expelled from her school, and is forced to join her mother (in spite of their strained relationship) under the Vernon’s roof. Chasing behind her is Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), her mother’s choice for her intended spouse, though Frederica abhors him.
It’s a lot of people to keep track of, so the film helps out with humorous introduction cards – the image of each character with their name and a brief tongue-in-cheek description (Sir James’ title card describes him as “vastly rich, rather simple and a bit of a ‘rattle’”). As with the novella, viewers may feel nervous at first that they’ll forget who’s who, but that fear quickly subsides. Each of the characters become quickly unique and recognizable, due to strong writing and pointed performances. Tom Bennett does a particularly funny turn as the buffoonish Sir James. Most of the heavy lifting goes to Kate Beckinsale, who must play Lady Susan as pragmatic and dissembling without turning the audience against her. She maintains a sort of “all in good fun” attitude that allows us to track with her as the farce unfolds.
In true Jane Austen fashion, great fun is poked at the importance of society appearances, money, and calculated marriages. Here, Whit Stillman finds a perfect artistic collaborator, as his films have always laughed at the self-seriousness of the elite, while still evoking their humanity. All of the characters have real flaws, strengths, and hopes. Frederica’s distaste for Sir James isn’t just scorn, it’s a real fear of losing a chance for a happy marriage. Reginald’s waffling back and forth between loving and hating Lady Susan is based in passion that, though fickle, is genuine. Lady Susan herself is really only trying to do what’s best to provide for her family, even if it blinds her to her own daughter’s happiness.
The dialogue is as expected, sharp and clever – one wonders if Stillman’s words were always meant to spring from the mouths of British gentry. While all the characters are enjoyable, there is a sense that the women are more developed than the men, something I also felt about 2011’s Damsels in Distress (and possibly even Last Days of Disco). This film also reunites Disco’s duo of Chloë Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale. Sevigny almost seems out of place as the story’s sole American, but it’s a forgivable fault, if a fault at all. The two have a solid chemistry together (Sevigny plays Lady Susan’s best friend Alicia) and their scenes allow Beckinsale’s character the opportunity to be humorously frank about her plans and situation.
The film moves quickly, short scenes that keep the drama (and comedy) building without wasting too much time. A story like this could easily dawdle on film, but this may be the most propulsive Jane Austen adaptation I’ve seen. Stillman does a fantastic job at crafting scenes out of moments only alluded to in the novella, and retains the tone and progression of Austen’s story excellently. A pleasant comedy with memorable characters, Love & Friendship reminds us what an influence history’s comedies of manners have been to Whit Stillman all along.