Love & Friendship (2016)
“…the audience is being joyfully manipulated into liking…”
“Love & Friendship” is a new movie by Whit Stillman and an adaptation of a short novel by Jane Austen “Lady Susan”. The plot is rather simple: the 1790s, a recently widowed Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale), together with her American confidante Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny), arrives to spend some days at her brother’s estate Churchill where she becomes the centre of spiteful rumours as a consequence of her past and present flirtations in accordance with her character. Soon upon arrival, Lady Susan submits to her charm a young bachelor of the estate Reginald DeCourcy. However, the matters are complicated further when Lady Susan’s daughter Frederica is brought to Churchill soon after, Frederica’s suitor Sir James Martin also makes his presence, and the situation of Lady Susan’s previous stay at Langford becomes clearer.
First thing to note is that “Love & Friendship” is faithful to the short novel, even though it is not easy to adapt “Lady Susan” because the novel is composed of a series of letters sent to and from various characters in the novel. There are certain variations, for example, Alicia Johnson, a close friend of Susan Vernon, never travelled with her in the novel, but just corresponded with the main protagonist, but such variations could be forgiven given the need to adapt. The film may be too long for such a thin material, but because “Lady Susan” is a novella with rich character and situation description, the film does not have a dull moment. Besides, other film adaptations of Jane Austen had their fair share of success, for example, Ang Lee’s “Sense & Sensibility” (1995) and Joe Wright’s “Pride & Prejudice” (2005), and in general, Jane Austen’s work translates well to the screen, given that it is often filled with engaging dialogues, interesting characters, and comic social situations.
“Love & Friendship” has a very even, well-thought plot sequence with interesting “situational” turns. This success is attributed to Whit Stillman, a person who knows exactly how to best direct “social situation” movies with unlikable, but very interesting, main characters, having previously directed “Metropolitan” (1989), “Barcelona” (1994), “The Last Days of Disco” (1998) and “Damsels in Distress” (2011), all comedies of “manners” that focus on “enclosed” societies and having engaging dialogue sequences. In “Love & Friendship”, Stillman uses his talents to the fullest: we hear Jane Austen’s language being incorporated into the movie flawlessly: neither making it dull nor outdated, but polished and funny; we see the main heroine, appearing rather sly, “playing” with everyone around her, but her true nature remaining somewhat mysterious until the very end of the movie.
The true “crown” here takes Lady Susan played by Kate Beckinsale. The whole movie revolves around her and her “scheming”, and she represents a real character study. In the novel, Mrs. Vernon describes Lady Susan as a “dangerous creature” with “attractive powers”, but, nevertheless, accentuates her irresistible physical beauty and uncommonly good manners, saying that: “[Lady Susan] is delicately fair, with fine grey eyes and dark eyelashes… possesses[ing] an uncommon union of symmetry, brilliancy and grace”. Mrs Vernon continues: “… [Lady Susan] is clever and agreeable, has all that knowledge of the world which makes conversation easy, and talks very well, with a happy command of language, which is too often used I believe to make black appear white.” Equally, in the novel, Reginald DeCourcy describes Susan Vernon as “the most accomplished coquette in England”…[having] “bewitching powers” and “possess[ing] a degree of captivating deceit”. Being powerful in her demeanour, beautiful and intelligent, she appears a femme fatale alike to Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Lady Susan flirts openly with young and handsome Reginald DeCourcy, excessively and insincerely flatters her sister-law, shows authoritatively condescending behaviour towards her only daughter, and even displays a false level of affection with her close friend Alicia Johnson. Despite all that, as the characters in the movie, we, the audience, can possibly guess the true cunning nature of Lady Susan and her “plotting”, but we also take a true delight in her ill-intentional charm.
However, throughout the film, Lady Susan is also starting from being seemingly perfect in her views and behaviour, and ending up being humiliated in the eyes of the audience. For example, seemingly very knowledgeable Lady Susan starts to display elements of complete superficiality and commonplace ignorance: Lady Susan does not comprehend the reference to a “Kentish nightingale”, i.e. blackcap, when it is made in relation to her daughter’s singing, and does not even know her order of 10 commandments, even though she chastises her daughter Frederica for failing to know such “simple” and “well-known” biblical matter. These circumstances do not appear in the novel, and they are cleverly made up by Stillman to underline Lady Susan’s faults beneath her well-spoken manner and impeccable manners.
Kate Beckinsale is perfect in the role of Susan Vernon, and, in fact, director/scriptwriter Whit Stillman had her in mind when thinking about Lady Susan from the very beginning. Beckinsale, probably best known for “Underworld” (2003) and “The Aviator” (2004), appears harmless, but her sweet girly voice betrays the notes of menace and deception. In the novel, Lady Susan, although sweet in person to people around her, is very spiteful about them behind their backs, for example, she implies that she would subdue DeCourcy’s “insolent spirit” and “humble the pride of these self-important De Courcies [sic] still lower…”; and, referring to Alicia’s husband, says that he “just old enough to be formal, ungovernable and to have the gout – too old to be agreeable, and too young to die.” Beckinsale’s transformation also seems far from being original: somehow her excellent portrayal of Lady Susan is more akin to that possibly displayed by someone who has regard for both Judi Dench and Julie Andrews. Other cast is also great, such as Stephen Fry in the role of Alicia’s husband and Xavier Samuel in the role of Reginald DeCourcy. Tom Bennett in the role of Frederica’s rich and pompous suitor Sir James Martin has nearly “hijacked” the whole movie. With his ardour and maniacal smile, Sir James Martin’s scenes are very comical and interesting to watch, largely because they are in stark contrast to straight-faced and calm demeanour of Lady Susan and her entourage.
It is hard to find faults in such a controlled direction, perfect casting, and a meticulously crafted script. However, the movie sometimes runs very dry with unimaginative camerawork and too theatrical, “stagey” production. Moreover, towards the very end of the film, Stillman unnecessarily invents too many things not happening in the novel.
Although at times theatrically dry and not that funny, “Love & Friendship” is, nevertheless, very witty and entertaining, with Kate Beckinsale as Susan Vernon casting her irresistible charms on the audience, as well as her co-stars. A true delight for any lover of period dramas. 9/10