LOVE & FRIENDSHIP
A frothy little near-frivolity, and I guess I wouldn't have it any other way.
Written and directed by Whit Stillman (based on the novell Lady Susan by Jane Austen)
With Kate Beckinsale (Lady Susan Vernon), Morfydd Clark (Frederica Vernon), Chloe Sevigny (Alicia Johnson), Stephen Fry (Mr. Johnson), Xavier Samuel (Reginald DeCourcy), Emma Greenwell (Catherine DeCourcy Vernon), Justin Edwards (Charles Vernon), Tom Bennett (Sir James Martin), Jenn Murray (Lady Maria Manwaring), and Lochlan O'Mearain (Lord Manwaring)
Whit Stillman, whose name shall always tantalizingly suggest a pun that you can just never quite put together, has returned once again, with his fifth feature, Love & Friendship, based upon Lady Susan, a lesser-known Jane Austen joint (lesser-known, in part, I'm sure, thanks to the fact it was only ever actually published about a half-century after her death). Love represents a slight change of pace for this chronicler of upper-class humanity: it is his first literary adaptation; and, since it is at least a relatively faithful adaptation, it maintains its setting in 18th century England. But it is, in the end, only a slight change of pace—the general sense of existing inside a privileged bubble remains unpierced, and you get no impression of anything of consequence existing outside of its characters' lives, even though the plot and your sympathy for its protagonist (heroine perhaps being too strong a word) depends pretty crucially on the idea that Lady Susan Vernon, an increasingly-destitute widow and mother, is only ever one misstep away from trading her friends' comfortable chaise lounges for the less comfortable accommodations of a London alleyway. Well, anyway, it is Whit Stillman we're talking about, and one probably wouldn't expect anything less: his adaptation of the novella is witty and fun and his direction mostly nice and breezy. Stillman even takes recourse to a few neat moments of formalist invention—although I'd be derelict if I didn't point out that the typical image in Love is handsome and bland in equal measure. (And usually it'll be accompanied by some beyond-obvious Masterpiece Theatre music, natch.) For the most part, then, Stillman elects to stay out of his star's way, and this isn't necessarily a bad thing, since it's in Stillman pictures that one remembers that Kate Beckinsale can act after all. (And that's something you very quickly forget whenever you watch any of her collaborations with her ex-husband, veteran bad movie maker Len Wiseman.)
The plot concerns this Lady Susan, whom we find still in mourning—technically speaking, anyway—for her dead husband, Lord Vernon, whose passing has left her without much in the way of means in this world. Thus she and her daughter have been going from friend to friend, crashing at their posh manors and townhouses, while Susan attempts to get her daughter, Frederica, married off to a gentleman of suitable income. She'd solved their problems entirely not long before the story started, in fact, by matching Frederica with a wealthy ninny by the name of Sir James Martin. Unfortunately, the younger Vernon woman would have none of her mother's cold pragmatism, and couldn't stand the thought of potentially procreating with such a dysgenic lump of aristocratic debris; and this has sent the family begging (under pretense, of course, for propriety's sake) to her in-laws, Charles and Catherine Vernon. Once arrived at their home in Churchill, Susan begins plotting anew to get everything she needs and wants, particularly when it comes to Catherine's brother, Reginald DeCourcy. Of course, it's not very long before Sir James reappears, because he apparently really does love Frederica, in his extremely simple way. Meanwhile, the scandal and destruction that Susan's left in her wake—particularly in regards her friendship to Alicia Johnson and her more-than-friendship to a certain Lord Manwaring—is never too far behind her.
After that, the plot becomes complicated.
It is, of course, very mildly confusing even in the telling: there are a lot of characters to keep track of, and even with Stillman's best efforts to introduce them—showing an image of them next to their name, adding a sometimes-droll description of their role underneath—it's not hard to get slightly lost in the thicket of relationships. But this is part of the fun, and, anyway, it's very clear very quickly that only one person matters at all, and that's Lady Susan. The film is not a rigorous character study, but winds up being an easygoing and glancing one nonetheless, largely thanks to Beckinsale. Within her performance, without which the film would fall apart more-or-less completely, Susan's will to survive and flourish within the constraints of her environment is magnetic; and this is in spite the fact that she's something close to completely amoral. Yet she's charming enough (and her family's straits dire enough) that you forgive her, and the final shot of Beckinsale's face in the crowd suggests that there was always perhaps a little bit more than pure self-interest in her heart, after all.
Now, it bears remarking that Beckinsale is ably assisted by costume designer Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaig, who manages to make some 19th century costumes that not only look like they actually fit, but also appropriately comment upon the characters wearing them, above all Susan, who spends the first hour swanning around in some seriously ironic widow's couture.
Still, the entertainment value of Love certainly isn't entirely wrapped up in Susan's byzantine machinations, which tend to be so well-hidden and subtle—and prone to alteration—that you might not even bother following along with them. Rather, the best stuff in Love is the dry comedy, most forcefully (and most amusingly) represented by Sir James' complete cognitive dysfunction. One surmises that Stillman asked Tom Bennett to give his best Hugh Laurie impression from Blackadder the Third, and it's very good. It's only a pity that, sometimes, Stillman's script tries too hard, and that sometimes this combines with his relaxed direction to let the air out of his otherwise-sterling comedy. For the choicest example, take the best line Sir James utters, when he arrives at Churchill and remarks, as if inspired, "So that's how you say it!" It's quite honestly hilarious—or at least it was, before he and the Vernons spent the next, endless two minutes explaining the joke, squashing everything that was so whimsical and silly about it. But that's just the worst, and for the most part Stillman is guilty of, at most, only minor mistakes. The bulk of the Sir James material is kind of fantastic, as he walks around being dumber than any real human being has ever been. In fact, one earnestly wishes there were much more of the dolt to be had in the film; his is the purest example of the kind of light, lively, broad entertainment you would never dare expect from a sober British literary adaptation. To its credit, Love is anything but sober (though it is very British, Chloe Sevigny's American expatriate notwithstanding). No, a sober film wouldn't introduce its love interest with onscreen text, as "a most handsome man," who goes on to speak not a single line of dialogue in the whole film, preferring instead to leer and pose suggestively, either at the camera or at Beckinsale. In fact, the whole movie feels a bit like a lark, and that's a good thing.
This weightlessness makes for an enjoyable time spent with a bunch of fake people from the past; meanwhile, the real issues the film gingerly tackles give it just enough of a bite that you can't say that it's totally meaningless. It's the warm porridge, and I approve.