Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Whit Stillman
Stars: Kate Beckinsale, Xavier Samuel, Chloe Sevigny, Tom Bennett, Morfydd Clark, Lochlann O’Mearain, Justin Edwards, Jemma Redgrave, James Fleet, Jenn Murray.
Jane Austen’s novels (Sense And Sensibility, Pride And Prejudice, etc) were rather staid drawing room romances that were critiques of the social mores, class differences, manners, love, the search for a good husband and the role of women in Edwardian England. Which makes Love & Friendship a rather unusual and wonderfully comic take on Austen’s usual themes.
The film is an adaptation of a little known early novella written by Austen called Lady Susan that was not published until 50 years after her death. The novella was written mainly as a series of letters, which meant that it was considered virtually unfilmmable. But independent American filmmaker Whit Stillman (The Last Days Of Disco, Barcelona, Metropolitan, etc) was up to the task of tackling the story and adapting it to the screen. And the result is an articulate and witty take on the typical costume drama, with plenty of laugh out loud moments throughout. Love & Friendship has become Stillman’s highest grossing film at the box office, not surprisingly since it is also his most entertaining and accessible film to date.
Kate Beckinsale delivers one of her best performances for years as Lady Susan Vernon, a calculating and manipulative widow who schemes to find herself a husband of means. After a doomed dalliance with the married Lord Mainwaring (Lochlann O’Mearain), Lady Susan finds herself temporarily without a place to reside. She takes up residence at Churchill, the country estate of her brother-in-law Charles (Justin Edwards) while waiting for the malicious gossip about her indiscretions dies away.
She also plans to find a suitable match for her timid daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark), who has run away from boarding school. Lady Susan is aided in her endeavours by her loyal friend and confidante Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny), an American loyalist from Connecticut. Alicia’s older but wise husband (Stephen Fry) is not so enamoured with the scheming Lady Susan though and threatens to banish her back to Connecticut if she doesn’t sever all ties.
Lady Susan sets her sights on the handsome Sir Reginald de Courcy (Australian actor Xavier Samuel, from The Loved Ones, the Twilight tween vampire series, etc), who seems drawn to her charms, much to the horror of his family. She also tries to arrange a marriage between Frederica and the rich but buffoonish Sir James (Tom Bennett, from tv series PhoneShop, etc).
This is a busy little comedy with lots of characters, who are all introduced by way of title cards. But it is fairly easy to keep up with the machinations of Lady Susan. Beckinsale delivers a superb performance in a showy role, and this is a change of pace for her after a series of action heroine roles in the Underworld series. The other stand out character is the awkward and dimwitted Sir James, a wonderful creation who often says the wrong thing at the wrong time, and Bennett plays the character with a great sense of self effacing humour. It is a scene stealing performance. Apparently Stillman was writing additional dialogue on the set to give the character more screen time.
Not your typical dry and dull costume drama, this is a stylised and subversive satire on Austen’s usual themes and characters and polite dialogue. It is more light hearted and comical in tone. There is plenty of biting, arch dialogue and bitchy put downs delivered with gusto by the strong cast. And Love & Friendship looks fabulous, thanks to Richard van Oosterhout’s cinematography, Elmer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh’s costumes and Anna Rackard’s production design, which are all exquisite and brings to life the rich interiors and burnished hallways and manicured gardens of the setting.
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