As impossible as it may seem, Love & Friendship, is a Jane Austen adaptation that you haven’t seen done twelve times. American auteur (and Austin tragic) Whit Stillman adapts the novella Lady Susan into a hilarious and fresh comedy of master manipulator Lady Susan (Beckinsale) colliding with her in-laws like a hurricane; a beautiful, articulate, eminently convincing one at that.
After being run out of the Manwaring Estate after accusations of trifling with the devilishly handsome Lord Manwaring (Lochlann O’Mearáin), widower Lady Susan Vernon (Beckinsale) must head to her brother Charles’ (Justin Edwards) home, Churchill. Her brother’s home becomes the arena for her to restore her station and marry off her daughter Frederica.
There are moments in the beginning of Love & Friendship where you start to doubt your own intelligence. Stillman shares Austen’s rapier like wit and every fast talking character is delivering line after loaded line of dialogue. You realise that watching Love & Friendship is a lot like joining a game of jump rope. The momentary swaying to get the rhythm is necessary before you leap in and start bouncing around to their beat. Stillman relishes the subtlety of this ‘comedy of manners,’ as all of the characters (especially the men) are powerless to the wiles of Lady Susan.
Kate Beckinsale is divine as Lady Susan Vernon. For an actor often relegated to the Hollywood sidelines, it’s nice to be reminded of her raw talent with Austen heroines, and in this case an anti-heroine. Beckinsale’s Susan has a beautifully polite way of addressing the obvious that cuts through the cordial. Stillman uses the interplay between outsider Chloë Sevigny’s Alicia Johnson and Lady Susan as the behind the curtain of her puppetry.
Tom Bennett’s Sir James Martin comes in and just steals the entire film. The hilarious dullard and prospective suitor of Frederica Vernon (Clark), apart from being the nicest character in the film, may be the best person to teach you about religion or discover the names of new vegetables, like peas. According to Stillman, Bennett’s performance became so essential to the film that he began writing new scenes for the character. Xavier Samuel’s Reginald DeCourcy essentially plays the male audience; sure from the outset of the film that he knows exactly what he’s in for and then helplessly lured into Lady Susan’s honey trap. Young DeCourcy (Samuel) begins the film inflated and confident and the longer he’s in the presence of Lady Susan the more deflated he becomes.
The rest of the amazing cast are superb in their brief contributions. The highlights are of course Jenn Murray’s highly strung and constantly crying Lady Lucy Manwaring symbolising the fall-out from Lady Susan’s behaviour; but you cannot stop laughing at her histrionics. Stephen Fry’s straight-faced Mr. Johnson keeps Sevigny’s Alicia in line with constant (and always beautifully enunciated) threats of deportation. Emma Greenwell’s Catherine DeCourcy Vernon is the most aware of her sister in-law’s antics but is increasingly powerless to stop them. Justin Edwards is wonderfully pragmatic and oblivious brother of Lady Susan, Charles Vernon.
Whit Stillman said that his primary filmic influence for Love & Friendship was the Steve Martin and Michael Caine slice of genius Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Scoundrels would be proud to see the result of his love and friendship.
Blake Howard – follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman
Directed by: Whit Stillman
Written by: Whit Stillman (based on her novella “Lady Susan” by Jane Austen)
Kate Beckinsale … Lady Susan Vernon
Morfydd Clark … Frederica Vernon
Tom Bennett … Sir James Martin
Jenn Murray … Lady Lucy Manwaring
Lochlann O’Mearáin … Lord Manwaring
Sophie Radermacher … Miss Maria Manwaring
Chloë Sevigny … Alicia Johnson
Stephen Fry … Mr. Johnson
Xavier Samuel … Reginald DeCourcy
Emma Greenwell … Catherine DeCourcy Vernon
Justin Edwards … Charles Vernon
Kelly Campbell … Mrs. Cross