Love & Friendship  – ★★★★1/2
🏰 Like its main heroine, the film puts a special charm on the viewer, and its intriguing, witty, playful and engaging nature is hard to resist.
Love & Friendship is a new film by Whit Stillman and an adaptation of a short novel by Jane Austen Lady Susan. The plot is rather simple: the 1790s, a recently widowed Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale), together with her American confidante Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny), arrives to spend some days at her brother’s estate Churchill, where she becomes the centre of spiteful rumours as a consequence of her past and present flirtations in accordance with her character. Soon upon arrival, Lady Susan submits to her charm a young bachelor of the estate Reginald DeCourcy. However, the matters are complicated further when Lady Susan’s daughter Frederica is brought to Churchill soon after, Frederica’s suitor Sir James Martin also makes his presence, and the situation of Lady Susan’s previous stay at Langford becomes clear.
Love & Friendship is faithful to the short novel it is based on, even though it is not easy to adapt Lady Susan as it is composed of a series of letters sent to and from various characters in the story. There are certain variations, for example, Alicia Johnson, a close friend of Susan Vernon, never travelled with her in the novel, but just corresponded with the main protagonist. The film may be too long for such a thin material, but because Lady Susan is a novella with very rich character studies and situation descriptions, the film does not have a dull moment.
The film has a very even and well-thought-out plot sequence with interesting “situational” turns. This success is attributed to Whit Stillman, a person who knows well how to best direct situational dramas with unlikable, but interesting, main characters, having previously directed Metropolitan (1989), Barcelona (1994), The Last Days of Disco (1998) and Damsels in Distress (2011), all “comedies of manners” that focus on “enclosed” societies and having engaging dialogue sequences. In Love & Friendship, Stillman uses his talents to the fullest: we hear Jane Austen’s language being incorporated into the film flawlessly: neither making it dull nor outdated, but polished and funny; we see the main heroine, appearing rather sly, “playing” with everyone around her, but her true nature remaining somewhat mysterious until the very end of the film.
The crown here takes Kate Beckinsale playing the titular role. The whole film revolves around her and her “scheming”, and she represents a real character study. In the novel, Mrs. Vernon describes Lady Susan as a “dangerous creature” with “attractive powers”, but, nevertheless, accentuates her irresistible physical beauty and uncommonly good manners, saying that: “[Lady Susan] is delicately fair, with fine grey eyes and dark eyelashes… possesses[ing] an uncommon union of symmetry, brilliancy and grace”. Mrs Vernon continues: “… [Lady Susan] is clever and agreeable, has all that knowledge of the world which makes conversation easy, and talks very well, with a happy command of language, which is too often used, I believe, to make black appear white.” Equally, in the novel, Reginald DeCourcy describes Susan Vernon as “the most accomplished coquette in England”…[having] “bewitching powers” and “possess[ing] a degree of captivating deceit”. Being powerful in her demeanour, beautiful and intelligent, she appears a femme fatale similar to Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Lady Susan flirts openly with young and handsome Reginald DeCourcy, excessively and insincerely flatters her sister-law, shows authoritatively condescending behaviour towards her only daughter, and even displays a false level of affection with her close friend Alicia Johnson. Despite all that, we, as the audience, can possibly guess the true cunning nature of Lady Susan and her “plotting”, but we will also do so taking a special delight in all of her hidden machinations and ill-intentional charm.
In the film, Lady Susan may start from being seemingly perfect in her views and behaviour, but she will end up being humiliated in our eyes. For example, seemingly very knowledgeable Lady Susan starts to display elements of complete superficiality and commonplace ignorance: Lady Susan does not comprehend the reference to a “Kentish nightingale”, i.e. blackcap, when it is made in relation to her daughter’s singing, and does not even know her order of ten commandments, even though she chastises her daughter Frederica for failing to know such “simple” and “well-known” biblical matter. These circumstances do not appear in the novel, and they are cleverly made up by Stillman to underline Lady Susan’s “faults” beneath her well-spoken manner and impeccable manners.
Kate Beckinsale is perfect in the role of Susan Vernon, and, in fact, director/scriptwriter Whit Stillman had her in mind when thinking about adapting this novel. Beckinsale, probably best known for Underworld (2003) and The Aviator (2004), appears harmless, but her sweet girly voice betrays the notes of menace and deception. In the novel, Lady Susan, although sweet in person to people around her, is spiteful about them behind their backs, for example, she implies that she would subdue DeCourcy’s “insolent spirit” and “humble the pride of these self-important De Courcies [sic] still lower…”; and, referring to Alicia’s husband, says that he “just old enough to be formal, ungovernable and to have the gout – too old to be agreeable, and too young to die.”
Beckinsale’s transformation also seems far from being original: somehow her excellent portrayal of Lady Susan is more akin to that possibly displayed by someone who has regard for both Judi Dench and Julie Andrews. Other cast is also great, such as Stephen Fry in the role of Alicia’s husband and Xavier Samuel in the role of Reginald DeCourcy. Tom Bennett in the role of Frederica’s rich and pompous suitor Sir James Martin has nearly “hijacked” the whole movie. With his ardour and maniacal smile, Sir James Martin’s scenes are very comical and interesting to watch, largely because they are in stark contrast to straight-faced and calm demeanour of Lady Susan and her entourage.
It is hard to find faults in such a controlled direction, perfect casting, and a meticulously-crafted script. However, the film sometimes runs dry with unimaginative camerawork and too theatrical, “stagey” production. Moreover, towards the very end of the film, Stillman unnecessarily invents too many things not happening in the novel.
Although at times at touch theatrically dry and not that funny, Love & Friendship is, nevertheless, a witty and entertaining film, with Kate Beckinsale shining as Susan Vernon, casting her irresistible charms all around her, including on the audience.
10 Comments Add yours
Good review. I miss this movie in theaters (I’m kind of a sucker for period pieces), so I might have to check this out as a rental.
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The review is really enjoying to read. From the amount of time you put in this I can see you’re a big fan of Austin’s works)). You know even your style changed into more old-fashioned way while you were getting deeper and deeper into this work)).
Enjoyed every word, though I’m kind of far from this genre – you know, all those English balls, wedding talks, manners. Gets my rude masculine personality bored)).
But. I have to confess I really admire Kate Beckinsale. She is extraordinary charming and attractive, smart, strong and vulnerable at the same time. She is the woman you can’t help, but fall in love from the first glance and keep admiring throughout the life. And I loved her play in almost every movie I watched. “Nothing but the truth” was one of the recent ones. I think I’ll watch this one anyway. Thanks for the review. Have a nice day 😉
Thanks! The last movie I watched with Beckinsale was horror Vacancy (2007). I did not particularly enjoy the film, but I could not help noticing how different her movies were – she was in actions, romantic dramas, light romantic comedies, horror films and now in a period drama. Amazing, and the remarkable thing is the quality of these movies also vary from one extreme to another – from great the Aviator and now Love & Friendship to such absolute misses as The Face of an Angel (2015).
I wonder where the “Underworld” gets in your rankings of her works))) Ahhaha. It’s all right, I agree her movies are extremely different from one to another. I’d say generally she succeeds to make a decent appearance rather than fails to do that, you agree?
You know I’m still sure you need to put a score to the movies you write of. Like 8/10 and your recommendations in the end. After all everyone wants to know if it worth watching or not.
And if yes – who will enjoy it either?)
I also enjoyed the review and the careful comparison with the novella. I think Lady Susan’s fault are more for irony and wit: she remained my favourite character in the film.
In fact this takes her and us back to her roles in superior UK films of the 1990s, including the 1995 ‘Emma’.
I was surprised at how much I enoyed this, even though I’m not a fan of these kinds of movies. Kate Beckinsale was perfectly cast in the lead role. I disagree with your thoughts on the camera work. I thought it was great and I loved the different intro title cards for each character .
I am glad to hear you liked this, too. By “unimaginative camerawork”, I suppose I meant the fact that Stillman’s previous movies had some more engaging and interesting camera turns zooms or perspectives, allowing the audience to “participate” in the movie. Here, in Love & Friendship, we are merely observers, though this does prejudice the brilliance of the picture, of course.
A lot better than most period pieces. Nice review.
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Thanks. As the director often says, this novella from Austen had a very big cinematic potential.