Reviewed by: Jim O'Neill
|Featuring:||Kate Beckinsale … Lady Susan Vernon
Morfydd Clark … Frederica Vernon
Tom Bennett … Sir James Martin
Jenn Murray … Lady Lucy Manwaring
Lochlann O'Mearáin … Lord Manwaring
Sophie Radermacher … Miss Maria Manwaring
Chloë Sevigny … Alicia Johnson
Stephen Fry … Mr. Johnson
|Director:||Whit Stillman—“Metropolitan” (1990), “The Last Days of Disco” (1998), “Damsels in Distress” (2011)|
A Whit Stillman film can be more petit four than layer cake. Staged in the one per-center world of débutante balls (“Metropolitan”), velvet rope enclosed dance palaces (“The Last Days of Disco”) or elite college campuses (“Damsels in Distress”), a Stillman comedy of manners is as much manners as it is comedy. When it’s over, I leave the theater feeling underbred, under-read and underdressed, as though I should have worn a bow tie and white bucks to the showing.
In his new film, “Love and Friendship,” Stillman, directing his own adaptation of Jane Austen’s novella, “Lady Susan,” has stepped away from his modern urban niche, and set his latest satire of class and privilege in the 18th Century British countryside. What might seem a stretch for Stillman has proved to be a wise move, and hardly a radical one. The characters in his earlier films often behave as though they are following an Austen code of conduct, sometimes talking about or even quoting the author, who died in 1817. Austen’s characters inhabit a society guided by rules, codes and commandments. Prior Stillman characters may live in a modern world that stretches those boundaries, but they long for Austen era principles. Such norms are often broken because people are broken, but when those norms are abandoned altogether the world becomes an unhappy place, and even worse, an unfunny place. Jane Austen knew this. So does Whit Stillman.
Stillman’s script is the sharpest, best tuned and most incisive of any Austen adaptation I remember, and the direction is nimble in a way that lets the viewer just barely keep up with the action. You never find yourself a step ahead of things the way you might when reading Austen novels or seeing films based on them. When reading or watching “Pride and Prejudice,” does one ever doubt that Miss Elizabeth Bennett will ultimately become Mrs. Fitzwilliam Darcy?
In “Love and Friendship,” there are enough unexpected turns to keep you amazed, and even shocked. This may be a morality tale, but it is not one in which good is necessarily rewarded or its opposite must face comeuppance. Justice ensues, but it tends to be fluid and charged with irony. Even several discussions of the Ten Commandments contain some verbal twists and surprises. An Anglican pastor, who looks young enough to be one of Mr. Chip’s students, explains that The Church of England and the Church of Rome number their Commandments differently. Who knew? Some characters try to sort out the tablets’ “Thou shalts” from its “Thou Shalt Nots,” as if they were engaged in a parlor game. A parent instructs her daughter about how honoring a mother’s request, even if that request happens to be less than honorable, is fundamental not just to the 4th Commandment, but to all of life. Theologians these folks are not—most of them are unfamiliar with Solomon, although impressed when told of his “smartness”—but they long for a belief system, or for one thing, certainly one God, to give their life meaning.
Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsdale), left penniless by her recently deceased husband, is in somewhat dire straits although she is hardly a weak and frightened widow: “one’s plight is one’s opportunity.” She and her daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark) are now dependent on relatives for support and shelter. They move in with brother-in-law Charles (Justin Edwards) and his wife, Catherine (Emma Greenwell) who has a brother, Reginald (Xavier Samuel). The brother is considerably younger than Lady Susan, but he is wealthy and strikingly handsome. He is also emotionally “calf-like,” slow on the uptake (Solomon doesn’t ring a bell for him either), and ineffective to the degree that he cannot even get a retriever dog to fetch a stick. In other words, he’s an ideal husband. At least he is for Lady Susan, who plays men the way a virtuoso would violin strings. In case her plan A to wed Reginald fails, her plan B (indeed, there are not enough letters to label all her schemes) is to find Frederica a match. For her daughter, she has chosen another rich heir, Sir James Martin (Tom Bennet) who is so bumbling and doltish that he makes Reginald look like Sir Isaac Newton. Sir James is a man who finds wonder in just about everything, even peas: “How jolly! Tiny green balls! What are they called?” He could have sworn there were twelve Commandments, so when he is informed that there are only ten, he sets about deciding which two he can now drop, as if his gray matter had room for even ten.
Frederica, unsurprisingly, rebels against Sir James’ proposal and finds herself at odds with her mother. Susan tells Frederica that she wishes she let her go hungry in the past so that she might comprehend better the seriousness of their current financial predicament.
The performances are splendid. Kate Beckinsdale is especially captivating as Susan Vernon, a lady with a past (“the most accomplished flirt in all England”) who uses her present state of affairs as a way to lay the groundwork for ruling the future. Connivance and deceit haven’t had this much allure since Scarlet O’Hara corralled men to save her land and Sharon Stone steered the police of her trail in “Basic Instinct.” Lady Susan’s methods raise a few questions, and more than a few eyebrows, but one cannot help rooting for her even if just to see what other ruse she might have up her lace sleeves.
Chloe Sevigny is another standout. She plays Alicia Johnson, Lady Susan’s American friend and confidante who finds that being close to Susan gets her into constant tussles, especially with her husband (a sublime Stephen Fry) who threatens to send her back to Connecticut, a backwater where one “could be scalped,” if she persists in associating with “that woman.”
Despite their duplicitous parlor games, Lady Susan and her cohorts live by and respect rules, even when they are pushing the envelope. They never protest or rebel against society’s boundaries. Not Bronte heroines, and certainly not Thelma or Louise, they would never let their passions get the better of them and throw away what they have and who they are. That would not only be tragic; it would be in bad taste.
You might scratch your head when you see how some of the characters ultimately match up, but there is no doubt that Jane Austen and Whit Stillman are, in the end, a perfect match. The movie portrays the traditional in an instructive and delightful way. And in these times, that is something radical. “Love and Friendship” is much more than a dainty confection. It’s a banquet, one to be savored and celebrated. I tip my hat—a top hat if I had one—to Whit Stillman.
Violence: Minor / Profanity: None / Sex/Nudity: Moderate
See list of Relevant Issues—questions-and-answers.