In Whit Stillman’s sprightly and effervescently comical Love & Friendship, the Victorian era gets an uproarious facelift. Based on Jane Austen’s novella ‘Lady Susan’ (but going by the moniker of yet another Austen title), Love & Friendship is a frilly costume drama plump with acidic joviality and atypically boiling over with meaty guffaws. For those who typically avoid hifalutin, period piece fare, which Stillman’s picture appears to be from an arm’s length, expect to rather entreat with a tongue-in-cheek send up; a welcome vacation from formality and frivolity. His one-of-kind character piece is injected with barbed zingers, sharp witticisms and a tangy, irreverent touch, like a creampuff fluffed full with key lime paste but still absolutely delicious.
Let it be known: Kate Beckinsale deserves award’s attention for her turn as the haughty hottie Lady Susan Vernon, a social climber married into wealth then turned to a life of migratory dejection when her husband up and dies. Stillman’s film begins with a swift boot delivered to Lady Susan’s bottom, who must hightail it by carriage from distant familial ties, ejected from their good graces following a scandalous affair with the handsome but married master of the estate. Her reputation slides.
With nowhere else to turn, Lady Susan absconds to the residence of unwelcoming in-laws. In no time, Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel), initially caught jesting of Susan’s ill-repute, executes a 180 on the initial assessment he’d made of the defamed widow. With her superlative flirting skills, years of ugly rumors are caught in of avalanche of overwhelming evidence that presents a lady who operates on an operatic level of intelligence and charm. DeCourcy is soon ga-ga for a woman who society (and more importantly, his parents) deems totally ineligible. His sister Catherine (Emma Greenwell) is not so easy won over and plots to keep Susan’s tempestuous barbs from sinking into her brother’s thin skin.
Navigating the uneasy shallows of social custom, Susan’s plight to find herself and her unfortunately-named daughter Frederica (played by the unfortunately-named Morfydd Clark) proper suitors amounts of nothing less than a game of chess with a true master. Similarly, watching Stillman tug the strings is equally the work of a master puppeteer arranging his pieces for the kill; working his formation into perfect Pincer position.
As Susan, Beckinsale spars with a silver tongue, both manipulative and cunning in her wordplay and even more quick to get the upper hand in any situation. Equally given to sarcasm as she is to making those around her partake in the mental gymnastics required to keep up with her quick wit, Susan’s only true equal is friend Alicia Johnson (Chloë Sevigny), an equally acute American who’s controlling husband (Stephen Fry) demands she have nothing to do with the scandalous Susan. The two swoon for the future in which he is deceased and they can stroll the streets in peace, lamenting the inferior world around them.
Of love and friendship, Stillman’s prose clearly favors the later. Only the fools and the naive in his film seem susceptible to the domineering, fickle sway of love. And no fool is greater than Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), a pawn of a landowner who offers the film an absolutely side-splitting jester. Certainly no King Soloman, Bennett is an indispensable presence as James Martin, whose frequent unfamiliarity with basic human tenants, as well as, for example, peas, make him a hysterical fool without measure, the perfect ying to Susan’s Machiavellian yang.
It should come as no surprise for those familiar with the filmmaker that Stillman’s feature is bustling with immaculate performances (though none can reach the heights of Beckinsale or Bennett) or that it’s overwhelmingly a creation of immeasurable style. Stillman’s unique framing device – he introduces characters mounted as if in 18th century portrait – lends the film a kind of joshing campiness. We’re not meant to take these characters nearly as seriously as they take themselves and Stillman’s being in on the joke makes navigating his Colonial-era waters all the more delightful. No degree of hoity–toity costumery (designer Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh’s frilly products are nonetheless visionary) can taper the sleeve of stupidity. Especially amongst the elite class.
CONCLUSION: Whit Stillman’s ‘Love & Friendship’ is a savvy anecdote to the stuffy Victorian costume drama. Hysterical and unpretentious, Stillman’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s work would make the author proud. Additionally, Kate Beckinsale proves that a career spent amongst CGI creations is a monumental waste of her awesome talent as she crafts an unforgettably shrewd feminist heroine in Lady Susan Vernon.