Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship is compact, modestly budgeted, sublimely acted and almost completely terrific. It’ll probably disorient the average Jane Austen fanatic, which is nice, too.
The writer-director of Metropolitan, Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco has adapted Jane Austen’s early novella Lady Susan, retitling it after an obscure story from Austen’s teenage years.
Written in the 1790s, Lady Susan owes as much to Les Liaisons Dangereuses from a few years earlier as it does to the Austen favorites of the early 19th century. Recently widowed and penniless, Lady Susan is played by Kate Beckinsale with fabulously assured technique. Crashing at the country house of her in-laws, the sly opportunist sets her sights initially on her eligible brother-in-law, the dashing Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel).
But there are other concerns, all of which Lady Susan confides to her friend and ally Mrs. Johnson (Chloe Sevigny, somewhat overmatched by the material). Lady Susan has a daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark), recently escaped from a distant boarding school for which her mother hasn’t paid the bills. Might Reginald be tempted by Frederica? To derail such a threat to her plans, Lady Susan engineers the arrival of a second eligible gentleman of means to the Churchill country estate: Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), a fop of the first order. Perhaps this ninny, who prattles on about “the 12 Commandments” and comports himself like Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy after too much laughing gas, will do the job. “How delightful it will be to humble the pride of these pompous DeCourcys,” Beckinsale purrs.
That’s enough plot, though there are many more entanglements. Stillman does so much right in his adaptation, beginning with the waggish on-screen character introductions, in which the actors strike a pose, in a soft-focus iris shot, and we’re shown their names and chief traits. Sir James, for example, is “a bit of a ‘Rattle.’” And how! In his first big scene, Bennett does more with verbal hesitations, precisely timed chuckles and thick-headed rejoinders than most actors do in a lifetime of comic roles.
Now and then you may struggle to sort through the stakes and terms of the various relationships. And if you’re looking for a swell of profound human emotion, you’re in the wrong neighborhood of Austen. Love & Friendship respects the rules of the game Lady Susan plays, as it respects the period in terms of design and tone. But the dialogue feels fresh and natural. This is an unusual side of Austen, cooler and more nakedly cunning. It feels very modern indeed.
‘Love & Friendship’
Rated PG for some thematic elements. 1:32. Fayette Mall.