Written by Matt Taylor
Tired of the CGI heavy sequels dominating the box office this summer? Fear not, film fans: Whit Stillman has a new movie hitting theaters, and it is as funny as his fans have come to expect. Once again, Stillman focuses his camera on the rich and selfish, but, this time, he’s found an unlikely source of inspiration: Jane Austen. His latest, Love & Friendship, is an adaptation of the beloved author’s novella, Lady Susan.
Reuniting with Stillman for the first time since the hilarious Last Days of Disco, Kate Beckinsale steps into the role of Lady Susan, one of Austen’s most manipulative heroines. A widow who is desperate to cling onto a rich man’s fortune, Lady Susan has developed somewhat of a poor reputation for herself, as her peers in the upper class see her as a flirt. After being (quite literally) chased out of her previous residence, Lady Susan decides to head to the home of her brother-in-law, where she hopes to seduce the handsome, eligible and much younger Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel) – something which his wealthy family is desperate to prevent. Further complicating manners: Lady Susan’s daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark), is no longer interested in marrying her embarrassingly stupid suitor, James Martin (Tom Bennett), and may have set her sights on the same man as her mother.
Now, this may be a Jane Austen adaptation, but it has very little in common with the stiff, BBC-esque costume dramas we’ve come to expect. Instead, Stillman instills his typical sense of deadpan humor and relies almost solely on dialogue to captivate the viewers. On one hand, this does make for a somewhat bland filmgoing experience, at least from a visual perspective. Even the costumes and sets look more like those from theatrical productions, and Love & Friendship never convincingly recreates the time period in which it is set. But that doesn’t seem to be the point. The movie’s screenplay is very much the main attraction here, as are the actors reading it. Stillman’s script is filled with witty, layered and, occasionally, savage jokes, that take jabs at the other characters, as well as societal conventions and traditions. The genius of his humor is that some jokes are apparent immediately, while others land a few minutes later, after the viewer takes a minute to consider the clever, carefully worded dialogue. And, at a brisk 92 minutes, Stillman keeps the laughs coming, without a single dull moment or weak scene.
But Stillman’s script is impressive not just because of the dialogue, but the way he condenses Austen’s complicated into a simple, yet self-aware comedy. This is a story filled with conniving characters, each with their own agenda, and it would be easy for the audience to confuse the characters and their individual motives. But Stillman always keeps the story clear. The film is also wonderfully cast, with Kate Beckinsale giving a surprisingly strong performance. Best known for her appearance in the Underworld franchise, Beckinsale proves to be a comedic force of nature here, delivering a number of hilarious one-liners with the appropriate amount of self-seriousness. Lady Susan is a very intelligent, but self-centered, woman, and Beckinsale shows a thorough understanding of her character, and is clearly having a lot of fun onscreen. Xavier Samuel is also appropriately charming as the male lead, while Tom Bennett proves to be quite the scene-stealer. Also, in a bit role, Chloe Sevigny does some of her best work in ages.
Love & Friendship certainly isn’t for everyone – in fact, the only other people in my theater walked out after thirty minutes. The period-appropriate dialogue can be confusing at times, and deadpan jokes certainly aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. But, this is definitely a breath of fresh air from the typical summer movies, and will certainly be a treat for fans of Stillman or Austen. If anything, see it for Kate Beckinsale, who delivers one of the best performances of the year thus far.
Overall rating: 8 out of 10