I’m not the world’s biggest Jane Austen fan. I’ll admit this upfront. Don’t get me wrong; I love a nice, well-versed sentence, and Austen certainly knew her way around a few. But I was never particularly in her target audience, admittedly, and I’m not complaining. Not everything is for everyone, certainly, and I couldn’t ever find the strength nor the energy to make my way through the adventures of the Dashwood sisters, or Elizabeth Bennet’s mangled feelings for Mr. Darcy. Even when zombies got involved.
Having said all that, I’ll always go out of my way for a new Whit Stillman film. The writer/director behind Metropolitan and Damsels in Distress might not have the same work ethic as some of his contemporaries — namely Woody Allen, Noah Baumbach or Wes Anderson — but his astute social observations and piercingly dry comedy are always, at the very least, an enjoyable watch. And his latest, Love & Friendship, is no exception. After all, it was only a matter of time before Stillman and Austen were to cross paths with one another, if perhaps not in the same lifetime. Their fortunes were practically as aligned as those at the center of some of Austen’s most celebrated works, and in some ways, Austen’s influence was always present in Stillman’s work. It’s a wonder why it took until Stillman’s fifth film for them to finally come together. But why should one question fate?
By both Austen and Stillman’s standards, Love & Friendship is a rather frivolous affair. Based on the author’s unfinished, previously unpublished novella Lady Susan, it’s not what either are going to be remembered or celebrated for, and that kinda makes it better as a result. The story is almost refreshingly minor in the scheme of things, especially with our impending summer movie season upon us, but still a study of manners, reputations and etiquette, just like everything that’s come from both writers prior.
It focuses mainly on the once-titular Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale), a privileged widow who flees to her brother-in-law Charles Vernon (Justin Edwards) and his wife, Catherine (Emma Greenwell), once rumors regarding her private life spin around town. Susan has been known to coast by her beauty and charm in situations like this, notably around men allured by her radiance, but Catherine isn’t as easy to convince. But the lady is nevertheless able to work her magic on the young suitor of the house, Reginald De Courcy (Xavier Samuel), Charles’ handsome younger brother, and soon her plans for reformed prosperity and comfort are in formation.
But it’s not long before Frederica (Morfydd Clark), Susan’s 16-year-old daughter, comes back into her life, and she unwillingly works her magic on Reginald. Susan is quick to take notice, however, and she takes this opportunity to try to court her daughter with Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), a well-meaning but constantly bumbling idiot, instead. Frederica isn’t necessarily charmed by James, to say the least. But Susan never lets her eye off the prize, and she constantly tries to assure she has the proper suitor in-arm. And aided by her ever-supportive American best friend, Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevingy), Susan won’t stop until she gets what she feels entitled to.
As stressed before, Love & Friendship wasn’t ever meant to become Austen’s legacy nor Stillman’s masterpiece. This is merely a charmingly cutting comedy of calculations, and one that’s perfectly fine with no big reveals, large set pieces or fussy fights. It’s about as basic as Austen can be, in some ways, and maybe that’s what separates it from becoming as good as it could have been. That’s not to say Stillman’s latest is bad; it’s not at all. It’s consistently lighthearted, filled with witty asides and completely in-tune with itself. It’s not going to play for everyone, but if you love Austen, you’ll probably find this one hard to resist. It’s a delightful treat —especially in the right moments — but not much more.
That said, the performances across the board are never less than respectable. Beckinsale, in particular, may never have been better. The actress owns the role like none other in her career, and shows much more quick wit and sensationally good timing than she ever did in, say, the Underworld franchise. And her chemistry with her Last Days of Disco co-star, Sevigny, hasn’t missed a beat despite 18 years apart. Even though Sevigny feels a little out-of-place in the part, but that perhaps has more to do with her limited screen time than anything else.
And while both do some nice work, along with a promising young Clark, it’s ultimately Bennett that steals the movie, and the some, here. His scenes never fail to impress or crack a smile on your face, and whether it’s an off-handed remark about the changed “12 commandments,” fumbling the name “Churchill” or trying desperately to keep his arm attached to his side, all while failing to untie himself out of a four-minute spiral of a ramble, he’s an absolute stitch whenever he’s on-screen. And he’s always missed whenever he’s not. Thankfully, however, Stillman never fails to make great use of him, and even if he’s merely marveling at the most mundane of peas, he grabs more than a handful of great laughs along the way. And it helps ease the fact that Stephen Fry is introduced and sorely, sorely underused throughout. He’s perfect for this sort of tidy comedy, and it’s almost sacrilegious that he isn’t used to his fullest, nor much at all.
But Love & Friendship, again, isn’t really meant to be a perfect film, despite the exquisite backdrops and near-flawless period costumes suggesting otherwise. Just like Stillman’s other films, it’s well-postured, carefully considered, razor-edged and dry to the bone, but more so than his other films, it’s almost glib to a fault. There’s not enough commentary or hard laughs to really warrant it a must-see, but to miss out, especially if you’re taken by Austen’s work, would be a shame. It’s easily among the funniest and most cutting adaptation of her work to come in a good while, but with Stillman involved, you do expect a little more than you’re ultimately given. And that, unfortunately, left a little cold by the end. But perhaps it is I who needs to learn to be content with being happier than I deserve. For there’s enough good here to make it a more enjoyable and easy romp than most that come my way this season.