Screenwriter/director Whit Stillman had to sell his Manhattan apartment to make his first feature film, Metropolitan, in 1990. But if money had been no object, it’s a fair bet that he would have been shooting his comedies of manners on country estates in the British Isles a long time ago, rather than populating them with contemporary American preppies and debutantes. Now Stillman’s time to interpret Jane Austen has finally come, and it’s a more auspicious match than the typical Austen heroine ever managed to enjoy.
Based on Lady Susan, an epistolary novella never published in Austen’s lifetime, Whitman’s latest opus Love & Friendship is no Masterpiece Theatre-style exercise in the Regency Period classics. Rather, it’s a bracing, fast-paced romp that emphasizes the author’s gift for cynical comedy. If anybody gets a romantic happy ending in this society where landing a suitable husband is a woman’s only real shot at financial survival, it’s purely accidental.
Love & Friendship reunites Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny, who co-starred in Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco (1998), as the newly widowed social climber Lady Susan Vernon and her closest confidante and admirer, an American expatriate named Alicia Johnson. Beautiful, smart as a whip and utterly without scruples, Lady Susan is the sort of force of nature who gives Nature a bad name. She wants to remarry posthaste without having to give up her married lover in the process, and – almost as an afterthought – marry off her timid daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) as well. And when Lady Susan sets her sights on some goal, everyone in her path had better get out of the way.
Beckinsale is clearly having the time of her life chewing up the scenery in this high-toned bad-girl role. Lady Susan’s breezy rationalizations of her own manipulative and deceitful behavior, along with her dismissive contempt for anyone less adept at playing the game than she is, are so outrageous that they leave her audiences both onscreen and off slack-jawed with awe and almost-admiring disbelief. The desirable “catch” whom she leads around by the nose through most of the story, naïve young Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel), starts off wary of this notorious flirt and quickly ends up making excuses for her as a misunderstood victim of other women’s jealous gossip.
Meanwhile, poor Frederica is desperately-but-politely trying to dodge the amiably dimwitted wealthy suitor whom Lady Susan has lined up for her, Sir James Martin. Tom Bennett, who bears a slight resemblance to the young Michael Palin, gets the film’s wildest comedic turns as a classic upper-class twit only a step or two up the intellectual ladder from Palin’s Python character Mr. Gumby. After seeing this movie, you’ll never be able to face a plateful of peas again without grinning.
Love & Friendship’s splendid cast is filled out by the usual array of aristocratic connections essential to the genre, with the odd onscreen caption thrown in to help you keep track of who’s related to whom and how. The inimitable Stephen Fry doesn’t get nearly enough screentime as Alicia’s much-older husband, who greatly disapproves of Lady Susan’s conniving ways whilst resolutely refusing to drop dead and leave his American wife his fortune anytime soon.
According to Beckinsale, shooting for Love & Friendship wrapped in a mere 27 days, and the light visual tone and sprightly pacing of the film reflect that breakneck schedule. If you normally avoid costume dramas because you think of them as ponderous, here’s an exception that may tempt you. It’s a mere bagatelle, not very deep or philosophical, but wickedly amusing and a delight to the eye and ear.
Love & Friendship is playing at Upstate Films Woodstock through Thursday, June 9, and then it will be screened across the river at Upstate Films Rhinebeck from June 10 through 16. For more info, visit https://upstatefilms.org. Upstate Films is located at 132 Tinker Street in Woodstock and 6415 Montgomery Street (Route 9) in Rhinebeck.