Jane Austen has been on Whit Stillman’s mind for his entire career. In his Oscar-nominated debut Metropolitan, Stillman’s hero remarks he’s never read Austen, adding, “I prefer good literary criticism. That way you get both the novelists’ ideas as well as the critics’ thinking.” Stillman has affection for his characters, especially when they’re asinine, and that affection extends through Love & Friendship, Stillman’s adaptation of a minor Austen novel. In addition to being flat-out hilarious, the film serves as a criticism of Austen’s current place in pop culture. So many Austen fans obsess over Mr. Darcy, thinking of her novels as a romantic ideal, when her characters would rather relish their independence, gossip, or toss out a saucy one-liner.
The big cast of characters is thorny, and it’s a little unclear just how they relate to each other, so Stillman includes thoughtful title cards that describe their station and personality. A hero eventually emerges: Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) is a widow who aims to flirt her way back into society. Without an announcement, she arrives at Churchill, the estate of her brother-in-law. Her prey is Reginald De Courcy (Xavier Samuel), a bright young man who can’t see how he’s manipulated. Lady Susan wants her daughter Catherine (Emma Greenwell) to find a husband also, caring little that Catherine’s feelings for Reginald are genuine. Through conversation and insinuation, Lady Susan ingratiates herself to Churchill, while the estate’s full-time residents are too agog to stop her.
This is Stillman’s first period film, unless you count The Last Days of Disco, which was set in the early 1980s. His characters are always urbane, sophisticated, and anachronistic: Fashion notwithstanding, they could fit into Austen’s novels, no problem. Love & Friendship must be freeing for Stillman since the mannered dialogue is just right for the period. They speak in the imperative (many sentences begin with, “One musn’t”), never pausing to think rules apply to them, too.
Their oblivious nature is central to Stillman’s comedy: His characters are flippant and self-aware, tossing out rules they ignore. Most of Love & Friendship is elegantly composed, with characters parading through hallways or a courtyard, and yet the dialogue has a wry, unforced eloquence that no other working filmmaker could match. Since Stillman likes these people, seeing their hypocrisy as a central to their humanity, we don’t judge them harshly either.
While Lady Susan is central to Love & Friendship, Stillman includes side characters that are equally delightful. The most memorable is James Martin (Tom Bennett), the bachelor Lady Susan selects for her daughter. James is cheerful, with a quick smile, but he’s also an exceptional moron. There are long, amazing scenes where James lays his profound idiocy to bare, and yet decorum prevents any interruptions. Bennett steals every scene he’s in with exclamations like, “So you read both verse and poetry!” If the line doesn’t make you smile, at least a little, then I’m surprised you got so far into a review of a period film.
Another stand-out supporting actor is Chloë Sevigny, who plays Lady Susan’s American confidant Alicia. She and Beckinsale were the leads in The Last Days of Disco, and their scenes together serve as a spiritual sequel. Their characters are not enemies since they both teeter on society’s fringes. But Alicia can barely keep up with Lady Susan, so there is a running gag where Lady Susan laments how she must tolerate Alicia’s accent, manners, and really everything that makes her different. The irony is how Lady Susan is guilty of far worse, and the blinders of 19th century England mean she can flout convention easier, as scandal has no home in formal gatherings. Lady Susan does eventually get caught in her web of lies, yet she fights through them with conviction and cognitive dissonance. Beckinsale never offers the slightest hint that she knows her character is funny, which is all part of the charm.
Love & Friendship has an inevitable ending, as do most comedies from that era. It’s to Stillman’s credit that the final scenes are wicked in their own right. He always finds a way to skewer his characters’ insensible natures, and he’s oddly thankful to them for being good sports about it. Most comedies nowadays rely on extremes, either in terms of sight gags, profanity, or bodily fluids. Here’s one where the characters are unfailingly polite, to the point where even the sharpest insults sound more like helpful advice.
Love & Friendship opens today at Landmark E Street Cinema and Bethesda Row.