Has there ever been a purer match between author and adapter than Jane Austen and Whit Stillman? Stillman’s first film, 1990’s “Metropolitan,” updated Austen’s explorations of social values and romantic ardor among the upper classes, and even had two characters debate her contemporary relevance. Then, in the second and third parts of his “earnest young yuppies in love” trilogy (1994’s “Barcelona” and 1998’s “The Last Days of Disco”), Stillman continued his consideration of how income, religious faith, and social pressure still play as much a part in guiding romantic decisions as they did in the 1800s. So when the news came out that the writer-director was making a big-screen version of Austen’s posthumously published novella “Lady Susan,” under the title “Love & Friendship,” could any fan of the filmmaker be surprised?
Kate Beckinsale stars in “Love & Friendship” as Lady Susan Vernon, a pretty young widow with a reputation in English society for being a brilliant romantic schemer, with only her own self-interest in mind. Beckinsale’s ‘Last Days of Disco’ cast-mate Chloë Sevigny plays Alicia Johnson, an American who married into the British aristocracy, and who’s become Susan’s closest confidante as she schemes to continue in the life of comfort to which she’s accustomed. Most of Susan’s plans involve her daughter Francesca (Morfydd Clark), whom she’d like to marry off to rich, affable dolt Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett). But the sensitive Francesca balks, and turns for help to her late father’s personable sister-in-law Catherine Vernon (Emma Greenwell) and her brother Sir Reginald DeCourcy (James Fleet). Susan counters by cozying up to Sir Reginald, hoping to persuade him of her righteousness — and perhaps even of her own marriageability.
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Lady Susan was an unusual heroine for Austen, in that she’s manipulative and casually cruel — qualities more common in her villains. But she’s perfect for Stillman, who’s always had a way of finding the humanity within the self-absorbed. Aside from Bennnett’s scene-stealing comic performance as the impossibly witless Sir James — a chap who’s confused by the Vernons’ home at Churchill because there’s no church and no hill — the fun of “Love & Friendship” comes from watching Beckinsale behave abominably and then get affronted when anyone calls her on it. Her Susan has an answer for everything. She doesn’t pay her servant because she thinks it would be an insult to their friendship. When one of her notes exposes an affair, she’s aghast that anyone would read her private correspondence. And she defends pushing Francesca to marry Sir James by saying she’s just appreciating “the one thing he has of value… his income.”
Beckinsale’s performance is so funny in fact that it sucks a lot of the air out the room for her co-stars. Whenever she’s in a scene, she delivers so many pithy putdowns per second that it’s hard to pay attention to anyone else. And whenever she’s not around, the movie dims. Though “Love & Friendship” was shot in Europe, in and around elegant old country estates, Stillman employs his usual stylistic touches. The scenes are short, the dialogue’s spoken quickly, and the camera rarely moves. That pace and rigidity can be exhausting, especially given that Lady Susan’s plans are complicated and a lot of the conversation is expository.
It doesn’t help either that Austen’s novella isn’t exactly “Sense and Sensibility” or “Pride and Prejudice.” The author herself never submitted it for publication, and when it was discovered among her papers, scholars pegged it as an early work, not fully realized. There are plots aplenty here, but not really much of a story — or at least not one worth caring about. Ultimately, the characters have a lot of good options open to them, and it’s hard to get too worked up about which ones they choose.
That said, the book and the movie do both extend Austen’s career-long explication of the plight of husbandless, penniless high-class women. At one point, Susan explains to her daughter why she’s working so hard to play matchmaker, saying, “We don’t live, we visit.” That kind of insight, coupled with the amusing way that the heroine phrases it, make “Love & Friendship” pleasurable to watch even when it all starts to feel like too much about too little. The film was picked up jointly by Roadside Attractions (who will handle the film’s theatrical release) and Amazon Studios, but it might play best once its theatrical run is done and it lands on Amazon Prime, where the smaller screen will suit its slightness, and the ability to pause and rewind will favor Stillman’s dry wit. Because if there’s such a thing as “a rich trifle,” then the “Love & Friendship” is it. [B]