With an unbroken cadence and an impish smirk, Kate Beckinsale brings the house down in Whit Stillman’s characteristically verbose and wickedly funny Love & Friendship, based on Jane Austen’s posthumously titled epistolary novella Lady Susan. Teaming for the first time since 1998’s The Last Days of Disco, Beckinsale (who stars as the Lady of the original title) and Stillman pay the oft-adapted author homage by both honoring the source material and building upon its virtues. It’s a razor-sharp comedy of manners that balances the glistening opulence of Austen’s 18th-century milieu with the stinging, postmodern wit of Stillman, who eschews the epistolary style and re-shapes the story into a swirling series of urbane tête-á-tétes that fits snugly into both he and Austen’s respective oeuvres.
Beckinsale’s Lady Susan Vernon is an unstoppable force of sophisticated, duplicitous scheming, exercising her gift for charming the opposite sex into submission whenever the opportunity arises. Women are naturally threatened by Susan’s mannered magnetism, none more than Susan’s sister-in-law, Catherine Vernon (Emma Greenwell), who’s put on alert when Susan announces she’s paying an extended visit to she and her husband, Charles (Justin Edwards), at Churchill, their gorgeous, sprawling estate.
Almost immediately, Susan spots her target, Catherine’s handsome, inordinately wealthy younger brother, Reginald De Courcy (Xavier Samuel). Like butter, the eligible scion melts in Susan’s gloved hands. All seems to be going to plan until her teenage daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark), runs away from school and pops up at Churchill, complicating her carefully-laid plans. Unexpectedly, Frederica emerges as a rival for Reginald’s affection. While gossiping with her similarly devious, American best friend, Alicia (a charmingly helter-skelter Chloë Sevigny), Susan devises a plan to eliminate Frederica from the field by pairing her with a peripheral suitor, the imbecilic Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett, a scene-stealer).
While many of Austen’s original lines remain intact, Stillman adds plenty of his own, mostly to reframe the story so that it’s stageable and shootable (the novella was told in a series of letters between the characters, who lived miles apart). Perhaps the most miraculous thing about this particular Austen adaptation is that it’s difficult to distinguish the old lines from the new ones; every bit of dialogue is sharp, funny, and gels with the rest of the script, which is a testament to Stillman’s pen. His style seeps in elsewhere as well, like when he introduces the dramatis personae one by one, each paired with a tongue-in-cheek title card as they stay unblinkingly, earnestly in character.
One couldn’t ask for a better reciter of said dialogue than Beckinsale, who has both the unwavering poise and disarming good looks to embody an aristocratic worldbeater the likes of Lady Susan. The seasoned English actress plays every scene straight as an arrow, which of course makes everything funnier: When Susan arrives at Churchill with an unpaid servant in tow, she insists that, “As there’s a friendship involved, I’m sure the paying of wages would be offensive to us both.” A sly devil she is.
The elegance of the period set design and costuming is almost enrapturing in its presentation, with Stillman clearly relishing in the succulent details of every nook and cranny of Churchill and its inhabitants’ fine, billowy dress. The lilting score reinforces the ornate aesthetics, creating a rock-solid period presentation that allows Stillman’s postmodernist social satire to pop like pink on gold. The material doesn’t have the grand dramatic swells of Austen’s later work (Lady Susan was written pre-Pride & Prejudice), but it nevertheless beats out almost every other adaptation of its ilk. Austen fans and Stillman devotees alike are sure to rejoice at what is so far one of the best, most idiosyncratic comedies of the year.
MPAA Rating: PG for some thematic elements
Running Time: 92 minutes
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