Anyone who’s seen a film by Whit Stillman knows him to be an accomplished social satirist, continuing the legacy of authors like Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Parker, and of course Jane Austen. In fact, the English writer is at the center of one the most sardonic exchanges in all of his films, when one of the characters expresses “I don't read novels. I prefer good literary criticism” when asked if he has read any of Austen’s works. Like the Romantic author, Stillman captures the wants, desires and fears of the haves as they desperately try to grab onto a world the have-nots are trying to infiltrate. In films like Metropolitan, Stillman wonders if the upper classes only let someone from a lower class to share their space as means of experimenting, or amusing them in their endless ennui. In Damsels in Distress he explores the notion of people constructing strict societal divisions in all aspects of their lives, such as in college. More...
It should come as a surprise to no one that Stillman decided to make a film adaptation of Jane Austen’s epistolary novel Lady Susan, the surprise perhaps would be that he didn’t realize he was already making Austen-ian films? Regardless, his adaptation, retitled Love & Friendship (borrowed from one of her short stories which makes it sound more along the lines of Pride & Prejudice and Sense & Sensibility?) features Kate Beckinsale as Lady Susan Vernon, a widow and “accomplished flirt” who seeks refuge from gossip by staying with her brother-in-law (Justin Edwards) and his wife (Emma Greenwell). From their estate she concocts a plan to find a new husband for herself, and one for her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark).
She unwillingly catches the attention of two men: her sister-in-law’s brother, the dashing Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel), and the goofy, but wealthy Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), both of whom court her despite the better advice of others. Lady Susan’s only ally is her best friend Alicia Johnson (Chloë Sevigny), an American expatriate who has been “threatened” by her husband with the punishment of going back to Connecticut if she continues being friend’s with her. Even though there isn’t much of a “plot”, the film is a delight to sit through because you can almost see the grin on Stillman’s face as he directed each scene. The joy transpires in his lovingly staged conversations in which a hand gesture is just as key as the words being used. And what words! Stillman has turned the letters from Lady Susan into glorious screwball dialogue delivered with grace by the ensemble.
Beckinsale has never been better, taking advantage of a part that uses her classic beauty as the perfect facade for icy comedy. She’s a classic comedic heroine in the vein of Garbo in Ninotchka who is unaware of her power around others. It’s often a joy to see her in scenes with Sevigny, because one imagines Alicia and Susan to be the ancestors of the characters they played in The Last Days of Disco. Even though the film pays great tribute to literature and the magic of words, Stillman has created the ideal marriage between the novel and cinema, making use of quirky elements like irises to introduce characters and tight editing that makes us realize perhaps the movies were always meant to be the home of Lady Susan.
Love and Friendship is now playing in limited release