Love & Friendship
I like period pieces about as much as a redneck likes a chilled glass of rosé — insufferable is the too impeccable mounting of posh costumery and mannered dialogue — but Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship, adapted from Jane Austen’s unfinished novella Lady Susan, makes for a different case. A romantic comedy so decadently witty it’d potentially more closely resemble a Luis Buñuel comedy of manners if it weren’t so decked out in 18th century era spunk, we tend to forget its setting guided limitations and see it as a perfectly modern work to be relished.
It was perhaps predestined that Stillman would one day fall into the trappings of the period piece. In his near three decade career, beginning with 1990’s urban haute bourgeoisie satire Metropolitan, Stillman’s primarily focused on lampooning the everyday lives lived by upper-crust, linguistically savvy members of American society who use their intelligence and their elegance as ways to disguise their true vulnerabilities. If set a century or so earlier, his finest pieces wouldn’t be all too different from the likes of Vanity Fair (1848) or Sense and Sensibility (1811).
After coming back from a thirteen year absence from filmmaking with 2011’s amiable (if forgettable) Damsels in Distress, 2016’s Love & Friendship finds Stillman roaring back to the top of the indie food chain. In place is not just a shimmering comedy but also a masterwork in the marrying of style and substance. As it goes for period pieces aplenty, we’re uniformly more drawn to the otherworldly, aristocratic dreamworlds set in motion than we are to the material at hand. But Love & Friendship, without fail, puts its sharpened dialogue before anything else, its sheen lavish but nevertheless toned down as a way to heighten Stillman’s bougie targeted commentary. We have no choice but to lap up its canniness.
Set in the late 1700s, the film follows the misadventures of Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale), a calculating socialite desperate to climb back up to the top of the social ladder after her wealthy husband suddenly passes away. Using her teenage daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark), as a ploy to distract from her own manipulations — she figures the girl, now almost past her teenage years, is now well-suited to attain a man of her own — we watch, with unabashed delight, as she hungrily lusts after the dim-witted Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), with whom she doesn’t have a romantic connection but rather a fiscal one.
So impressively calm and collected, one wouldn’t much suspect Lady Susan of being the power player that she is, but underneath her presentation of sophistication and beauty is a cunning femme willing to do anything to get ahead. Succeed in her not getting distracted by the more dashing Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel), whom she claims is actually meant to be her daughter’s potential suitor, and she might become the toast of England as she’d like. One wrong move, though, and she very well may be forced to go back to the abominable land known as square one, and that’s not somewhere this professional schemer is much willing to head toward.
And we don’t want to see Lady Susan fail in her ambition, anyway — this is the kind of morally ambiguous character we’d like to see get away with something sinful, a la Tom Ripley or Norman Bates (though thoroughly less murderous). The role gives Beckinsale (who, like co-star Chloë Sevigny, previously collaborated with Stillman in 1998’s The Last Days of Disco) the chance to (once again) announce herself as standing among her generation’s most underrated actresses. As Beckinsale’s extraordinary beauty has oftentimes landed her parts that have designated her as little more than an object to be visually fondled, it’s a treat to see an actress of her undervalued caliber finally receive a job that does her justice. Through Lady Susan is she provided with a vehicle that exploits her comedic chops just as much as her startling ability to near offhandedly handle the verbal exercises Stillman readily throws at her. Beautifully self-possessed, she gives one of the best performances of 2016.
And, fortunately, Love & Friendship is additionally a star vehicle that avoids the oft punishing illness of having a leading actor that overshadows the rest of the movie’s merit. Stillman’s writing and direction is as dryly acerbic as ever, but it’s his winning ensemble that accentuates the sum of its parts. Sevigny, as Lady Susan’s closest confidant, is a wry hoot as a Yankee who prefers the comforts of affluent English society to the less glamorous opportunities of America. Bennett is even better — maybe the film’s most entertaining asset — as an imbecilic love interest never to be undermined because his idiocy is so endearing, so effortlessly funny. Samuel is masterfully chilly as an eligible bachelor simultaneously appalled and magnetized by Lady Susan’s unhesitant day to day audacity. But we’re enchanted by Stillman’s audacity, too — an unconventional but delectably fun adaptation, Love & Friendship is a cinematic parfait of swank and substance that should practically boast in its being among the premier movies of 2016. B+