Writer-director Whit Stillman hasn’t made many films—only five, in fact, since his debut feature in 1990, Metropolitan. Apparently he’s found it difficult to find backing for his pictures, sophisticated comedies of manners with bright, articulate, and fairly affluent characters. He has a fine ear for the way highly educated people speak in social situations, the way they conceal their true thoughts behind proprieties, and can be, in spite of all subtlety, unaware of their own motives. In this he resembles the great English novelist Jane Austen, and he has always acknowledged her as an influence. Now, finally, he has achieved a career dream, adapting Austen to the screen. The film is called Love & Friendship and it’s based on one of Austen’s early short novels, Lady Susan.
Kate Beckinsale plays Lady Susan Vernon, recently widowed, in her early 40s, still beautiful, and with a reputation as, one of the characters says, “the most accomplished flirt in all of England.” As the film opens, her wiles have already wrecked one marriage, and lacking the means to support herself, she has moved into the country home of her brother-in-law. Now her eye is on a possible new conquest, young and handsome Reginald DeCourcy, played by Xavier Samuel. At the same time she is plotting to get her own daughter Frederica married off to a very rich man, who is also, unfortunately a complete idiot. Her confidante in all her schemes is an American-born lady, Alicia Johnson, played by Chloë Sevigny. Beckinsale and Sevigny were teamed in a previous Stillman film, The Last Days of Disco, and here they have a totally relaxed chemistry when they are on screen together.
But it is Kate Beckinsale who carries this film, a good actress who hasn’t had enough smart, funny roles in her career. She’s aided here by Stillman’s screenplay, which fills out Austen’s novel brilliantly, brimming with clever sayings that seem to flow endlessly from Lady Susan, an amoral charmer living by her wits and always one step ahead of everyone else. There’s no situation, however bad, that she can’t work to her advantage. Beckinsale’s bright manner and impeccable diction are delightful, even though her character is essentially heartless, especially in her disregard for her daughter’s feelings.
Make no mistake, this is a consistently funny movie—Lady Susan’s behavior is outrageous, but the stuffy society people around her can only smile and try to manage as best they can around her. In a supporting role, Tom Bennett is hilarious as Sir James, the blockhead to whom Lady Susan wants to marry her understandably reluctant daughter.
The story features over a dozen or so major characters, but Stillman’s direction is so smooth and self-assured that there’s no trouble remembering them. And although the picture reproduces late 18th century England with flawless costumes and production design, there is none of the stuffiness or pretension we usually see with period dramas from the BBC or elsewhere. The comedy never stumbles into farce or exaggeration—true to the spirit of Jane Austen, whose satire was always cloaked with politeness. Love & Friendship is a deliciously tart confection.