*** out of ****
(for some thematic elements)
Released: May 27, 2016
Runtime: 92 minutes
Director: Whit Stillman
Starring: Kate Beckinsale, Chloe Sevigny, Xavier Samuel, Emma Greenwell, Morfydd Clark, Tom Bennett, Stephen Fry
Attack of the Cougar, Jane Austen style. And the claws are out.
For those on a steady diet of classic Austen novels (and movies) such as Sense and Sensibility, Emma, Persuasion, etc., writer/director Whit Stillman’s lively adaptation of the author’s early novella “Lady Susan” is a surprising change of pace. Less pensive yearning and more dry farce, Love & Friendship provides everything we expect from Austen but then turns it on its head. The title itself is playfully sarcastic.
It’s late 18th century England, and class dynamics are again at the center of this Austen tale, with women of the middle class struggling to keep pace with the upper. The recently widowed Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) must lean on the good graces of in-laws to take her in; graces extended not only for financial reasons but also due to Lady Susan’s reputation (rumors of dalliances follow her, and for good reason).
Lady Susan is clearly too free with her romantic liaisons for polite society, and selfish, plus she spends her time scheming and manipulating others for her own amusement. But she’s also a cunning scrapper of a survivor, necessarily resourceful (even if unnecessarily devious), both for her and her daughter Frederica. Their relationship is strained, however, as Frederica is the very paragon of virtue that her mother is not.
In short, Lady Susan is a real piece of work. Beckinsale absolutely revels in it, but all beneath a carefully constructed and maintained air of propriety, of course. She may not abide appropriate etiquette behind closed doors (or people’s backs), but Lady Susan sure knows how to game the system.
Think of Love & Friendship this way: it’s like an inverse of Pride & Prejudice, where the duplicitous leech Wickham would be the protagonist who pops the elitist bubbles of the Bingleys and Darcys. Now granted, Lady Susan isn’t quite so bad as Wickham (but you can’t root for her either, nor should you, and that’s part of the catty fun). Plus, the Vernons and DeCourcys – while elite, and a bit blind to the challenges of those with less – remain well-intended, and generous.
The entire cast is first-rate, anchored by Beckinsale and perfectly suited to their types, but the highlight is Tom Bennett as Sir James Martin, a bachelor who’s shockingly dim-witted to be boasting an official honorific prefix title (which also speaks to how rich he is). Even so, Sir James is relentlessly in good spirits and of beaming disposition; an entirely agreeable man, almost like a human puppy. Imagine if Michael Scott from The Office was transposed to late 1700s English aristocracy but devoid of any self-conscious anxiety, and that should give you a pretty good idea of Bennett’s take. He’s an absolute scene-stealer, whose instinctive comedy is showcased in extended uncut takes.
This is all familiar territory for Whit Stillman, the director who – with only the fifth film of his 26-year-career – has made sophisticated satires about class dynamics his recurring milieu. The effort here lives up to his first name, although it’s so matter-of-fact at times that viewers may wonder exactly who it is he’s skewering (answer: everybody, just to varying degrees). In this particular outing the men get the brunt of it, coming off as gullible dolts (even the erudite ones) who are easy prey for women’s manipulations, both dramatic and subtle. Yes, Stillman mocks his characters – but with affection, not disdain.
Despite Lady Susan’s gaping character flaws, as the narrative twists, turns, and progresses, one begins to wonder: is she playing games with everyone just for her own leisurely sadistic sport, or is there a goal driving her mischievous undertakings? Whether Stillman ultimatley gives her a form of vindication, or even a subversive virtue, I’ll leave for you to determine – as that’s exactly what Stillman does (smartly). He never provides a strong suggestion either way, either blatantly or in subtext. A lady never reveals her secrets, and we shouldn’t know them either.