Love & Friendship

Review by David Jenkins @daveyjenkins

Directed by

Whit Stillman

Starring

Chloë Sevigny Kate Beckinsdale Xavier Samuel

Anticipation.

Whit Stillman can do no wrong.

Enjoyment.

So, so good. Shows that literary adaptations can make good movies.

In Retrospect.

Like all of Stillman’s films, there’s major re-watch factor.

The peerless Whit Stillman returns with an ensemble Jane Austen adaptation like no other.

Whit Stillman is a director fascinated by the idea of people gladly displaced from their own time: foppish debutantes abide by romantic era courting rituals in ’90s Manhattan in Metropolitan; a good old limbo contest trumps modern jazz in Barcelona; and lovers of disco music band together while boxes of wax platters are torched at baseball games in The Last Days of Disco.

With his ebullient and scaldingly droll latest – a superlative screwball adaptation of Jane Austen’s novella ‘Lady Susan’ – Stillman may have finally found an ensemble of characters who exist in their own time. The problem, though, is that quite a few of them want out, desperate to embrace whatever progressive notions the future holds. In fact, while his past work has often celebrated nostalgia and even kitsch, this new film is his first to reject such fripperies in favour of hard, unsentimental reason. And it’s all the more hilarious for it.

Love & Friendship sees puffed-up gentry adorned in lace-trimmed garments (colour-coded as to the capacity of their imagination) trying to get their prissy minds around the concept of modern romance. Or in some cases, doing their best to keep antiquated traditions of courtship burning bright. Kate Beckinsale astonishes as a maven of social manipulation named Lady Susan Vernon, introduced in a top-to-toe black combo replete with ostentatious feathered plumes.

To call her a chiseller would be over-stating it; she’s just ruthlessly independent and out to preserve her own tiny island of high-minded gratification. The only other soul allowed to visit is Chloë Sevigny’s displaced American society dame Alicia Johnson. Horse-drawn carriages and discreet, covered byways are the venues of their plotting, as Mr Johnson (Stephen Fry) has prohibited his spouse from fraternising with Lady Susan due to her unsavoury reputation.

Recently widowed, Susan takes on the task of coupling up her bashful daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) with any wealthy loon who’s happy to take the bait. Opting to use the grand country stack of Churchill as her figurative chess board serves to complicate matters, as all of her scheming is being witnessed and interpreted (sometimes correctly, often not) by coldly sympathetic sister-in-law Catherine Vernon (Emma Greenwell) and her lantern-jawed, non-oafish brother, Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel), himself possibly harbouring designs on the sphinx-like Susan.

While it all remains exorbitantly enjoyable on a superficial level (just hearing these actors twist their tongues around the dialogue is a delight in itself), there’s more to the film than even those with their spyglass pressed to the screen might see. While its roots are sunk deeply in the traditions of dress-up chamber comedy, the film also depicts politics and business as games of verbal double-dealing which require the player to expunge all traces of physical and emotional weakness.

Stillman’s work has often favoured building up characters and wrapping a loose-weave narrative around their eccentric travails, though Love & Friendship is plotted to intricate perfection, with staging, choreography, timing and geography all paramount to the subtle mechanics of the comedy. The illusion of frivolity, where levity and absent-mindedness help to flesh out delicate philosophical subtext, makes this a grand cru comedy.

Published 26 May 2016

Anticipation.

Whit Stillman can do no wrong.

Enjoyment.

So, so good. Shows that literary adaptations can make good movies.

In Retrospect.

Like all of Stillman’s films, there’s major re-watch factor.

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