Love & Friendship

*****

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Chloe Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale - from Jane Austen's novella, the beautiful and cunning Lady Susan Vernon visits the estate of her in-laws to wait out colorful rumors of her dalliances and to find husbands for herself and her daughter. Two young men, handsome Reginald DeCourcy and wealthy Sir James Martin, severely complicate her plans.
"Whitman respects and relishes in Austen's creation but is no slave to it, inventing additional characters to help the story flow."

Jane Austen's Lady Susan bustles energetically from the page in Whit Stillman's spot-on adaptation. He takes the written voices of her epistolary novel and shapes them into vibrant characters while retaining a nod to the original letter-based correspondence through scenes in which missives are read as their words appear on the screen. Lady S (Kate Beckinsale, having an absolute ball) is an unmistakably Austen gal, with her sharp-wit, swift judgement and strong opinions but, unlike her better known sisters, she is the ultimate anti-heroine - redeeming features, one imagines, would be below her.

Stillman wastes no time in scene setting, showing us the characters one by one, each with an on-screen caption summing them up. From the married object of the newly widowed Susan's affection Lord Manwaring ("A divinely attractive man") to the buffoon Sir James Martin ("a bit of a Rattle"), whom she intends her hapless daughter Federica (Morfydd Clark) to wed - as Susan puts it, he is "vastly rich, rather simple, ideal".

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The laughs that start with those captions don't let up as we watch Susan's scheming take shape. Known as "the most accomplished flirt in England", she has decided to try to mend bridges with her late husband's family, for her own ends of course, and soon finds her charms have worked their spell on her young brother-in-law Reginald (Xavier Samuel), much to the horror of his family. As the plot begins to thicken, Susan turns repeatedly to her American friend Alicia (Chloe Sevigny) as a confidante, even though Alicia's husband (Stephen Fry) has threatened to ship her back to the States because of the friendship.

Stillman respects and relishes Austen's creation but is no slave to it, inventing additional characters to help the story flow - such as an old friend of Susan's who job is to "pack and unpack" and who is unpaid because an offer of wages "would only embarrass us both" - while crafting dialogue that meticulously matches Austen's satire. Recurring jokes, such as everyone's outrage at the thought of Federica becoming a teacher, hit the mark while Tom Bennett's bumbling Sir James, whose nervous smile flickers on and off like an 'Open Vacancy' sign, is a scene-stealing comic creation, blithely oblivious to how ludicrous he is to everyone else.

Best of all is Susan, blissfully unaware of her own self-absorption, and who doesn't let the truth get in the way of a good story, after all "facts are horrid things". Beckinsale, freed from the constraints of catsuits and genre scripting, revels in the dialogue, with her scheming further emphasised by Eimer NĂ­ Mhaoldomhnaigh's costume design, which moves her from elaborate widow's weeds to forceful colours that make the other women around her pale in comparison. Despite her dominance, this is not merely Susan's show - all the female characters are in the ascendancy, from Sevigny's gossipy Alicia to Jemma Redgrave's head-cold inflicted mother of Reginald. The men are variously gouty, stupid or bland, a move that makes the film feel more daringly modern. The language may be Austen but Stillman ensures the humour speaks as clearly now as it did on the day it was written.

Reviewed on: 28 Jan 2016
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Love & Friendship packshot
A widowed woman tries to manipulate her daughter into marriage.
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Director: Whit Stillman

Writer: Whit Stillman, from the novella by Jane Austen

Starring: Kate Beckinsale, Chloë Sevigny, Xavier Samuel, Stephen Fry, Emma Greenwell, James Fleet, Jemma Redgrave, Jenn Murray, Lochlann O'Mearáin, Morfydd Clark, Tom Bennett, Justin Edwards, Kelly Campbell, Conor MacNeill, Ross Mac Mahon

Year: 2016

Runtime: 92 minutes

Country: US, Ireland


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