LOVE AND FRIENDSHIP
(2016, Whit Stilman)
[4.5 out of 5 stars]
[Image courtesy of Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions]
Polite society. An idea so absurd it’s almost oxymoronic. Jane Austen’s genius lies inexposing the fabrication of polite society and revealing the silliness of etiquette through wit and irony. The director Whit Stillman, the writers, and the entire cast brilliantly pull off this same feat in the adaptation of the little-known Austen novella about a woman’s devious schemes to find a husband for her daughter and herself
Widowed Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale) arrives in the estate of her in-laws where she plays matchmaker for her debutante daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark). By way of charm and manipulation she sets into motion her plans but, as usual, love gets in the way. As indicated in the title the film is about love, but here, romance is treated as a nuisance. The story is concerned with the securing of marriages for the socioeconomic survival of women and the script highlights this absurd notion with great comic verve.
The characters are introduced in amusing portrait shots with their names in intertitles. Some are accompanied with hilarious descriptors like “Mrs. Cross, Lady Susan’s impoverished friend, ‘helps pack and unpack’” or the addition of opinion like introducing Lord Manwaring as a “divinely attractive man”. It establishes the characters as pawns for Lady Susan’s plans but also as caricatures that are poked fun of.
There’s always a sense that every character is judged and scrutinised in everything they do. When a character makes an embarrassing statement, the camera lingers allowing the audience to wallow in the awkwardness. Scenes are intelligently cut in order to make the most of the irony in the script with each cut leading to the punchline. We’re not only watching how they live and act but we’re judging and making fun of how they live and act.
I really adored Kate Beckinsale here as Lady Susan because she embodies the character that is both scrutinising and the scrutinised. She may pull the strings but she fully participates in the action herself. She delivers the rich and complex dialogue so effortlessly while sustaining the energy of the script even in extended scenes of unabating back-and-forth.
Another brilliant performance can be found in Tom Bennett’s portrayal of the winningly dumb Sir James Martin. He steals every scene he’s in. Despite her objections, Lady Susan pressures her daughter to marry Sir Martin describing him as “vastly rich and rather simple” - the jackpot in her eyes. Tom Bennett takes this simpleton character and runs away with it. His delightful discovery of peas (he calls them “little green balls”) is so silly that it’s strangely charming. He expresses his shock and admiration upon finding out that Frederica is able to write both “poetry and verse”.
With a female character unlike anyone I’ve ever seen from the period, this adaptation breathes new energy and a modern spin into the world of Austen. It’s relentlessly funny and I suspect its endlessly entertaining and quotable script will reward repeat viewings.