Love & Friendship (2016)
Whenever a new Jane Austen film appears the purists insist the novel was better. But Love and Friendship (2016) is based on a little-known epistolary novella first published in 1871, so director Whit Stillman had a free hand in interpreting the story his own way. He could have made a traditional comedy of manners that emphasised the airs and graces of the British upper class, but instead, or as well, it is a very funny tale of a conniving femme fatale who exploits her charm and beauty to secure advantageous marriage. Her unrivalled ability to out-manoeuvre and outsmart every male she encounters makes her the epitome of the pre-feminist heroine.
Like most Austen stories the plot is labyrinthine in a way that reflects the dense fabric of 19th Century British society. But plot is less relevant than intrigue in Austen adaptations. On-screen text introductions identify caricatures rather than characters and set up the plotlines using Austen’s original delicious words and phrases. The centrepiece is recently widowed Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale) whose sole preoccupation is to marry wealth. Her husband left her a title without means but she survives happily through extended stays at the stately residences of family and friends. She leaves a trail of hushed scandal and both competes with and then helps her daughter marry for social advantage. With Lady Susan playing the imperious protagonist, her foils are two hapless males: one the handsome and serious young suitor Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel); the other the hilariously silly but very wealthy Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett). As the novella is based on letters the narrative feels episodic, like a series of comedic sketches, and each is performed beautifully with wry insight into the lives of the British elite. Predictably, Lady Susan is adept at exploiting gender vanities and overcoming male power using little more than her fluttering eyebrows and gorgeous smile.
While this is an impeccable period piece with the highest production values, it is Kate Beckinsdale’s performance that powers the film. She wickedly charms her way into and out of various social situations with natural grace, and so totally commands attention that her acting overshadows other excellent performances. But this is hardly criticism. For Austen fans, Love and Friendship has everything we love about her timeless classics; for others, it is a highly entertaining introduction to a body of work that is loved around the world. The only thing missing are any signs of love or friendship.
Director: Whit Stillman
Stars: Kate Beckinsdale, Chloe Sevigny, Xavier Samuel, Tom Bennett