Title: Love & Friendship
Director: Whit Stillman
Major Players: Kate Beckinsale, Xavier Samuel, Chloe Sevigny
Out Of Five: 3.5
To say that I’ve never been a Jane Austen fan is too simple. The problem is that I’ve always found myself irritated by her books yet I really enjoy adaptations of her work, either on the screen or on radio. They translate extremely well and I guess the loss of her voice, for me, improves things.
So the thought of a Jane Austen parody was completely up my street, especially as it came from the rather appropriately named Whit Stillman. Love & Friendship is based on Austen’s early novella, Lady Susan, which didn’t actually see the light of day until well after her death. The characters from the original remain the same, from the titular Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) downwards. A widow without much in the way of inheritance, she takes up temporary residence with various members of her family, while trying to find a suitable husband for her teenage daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark) and, of course, feathering her own nest as well.
It’s clear from the opening sequence that Lady Susan has an effect on everybody around her. She’s making a hurried departure from the Manwaring family’s country estate and it’s upset everybody: if anything, Lord Manwaring appears more distressed than his wife. Why would that be, then? As we discover, she continuously flirts with just about every man that she meets and then discards them. It’s a safe assumption that she doesn’t like men much, as we see when she is approached by a man while out walking with her friend, Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny). She dismisses him angrily, declaring she’ll have him horsewhipped if he continues to speak to her. Alicia asks if she knows him. Of course she does. She “wouldn’t speak like that to somebody she didn’t know!”
That’s one of the laugh-out-loud moments and there are plenty of them, although strangely the film takes a while to get going. The early pithy one-liners are so understated that they float over the audience’s head, almost as if they’re a warm-up act. They do, however, get bigger and better.
At its best, the dialogue is rapier sharp and lightning fast, but the film isn’t all about the words. There’s some genuinely comic moments, many of them from the gloriously stupid Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), initially a suitor for Frederica. Described as a “blockhead” and a “rattler” by the others, he’s an absolute riot with a big toothy grin and little between his ears. Which means he’s not only stupid, but blissfully insensitive to others. When he arrives with Lady Susan at the home of the DeCourcys (James Fleet and Jemma Redgrave), they, along with other family members, are both stunned and displeased to see him. Their stares of anger and astonishment speak volumes. His reaction? To be overjoyed at the wonderful family picture in front of him ……
Bennett isn’t the only one who gives a stellar turn, although his is both the most obvious and the easiest to over-cook. Kate Beckinsale is wonderfully cool and heartless as the socially ambitious Lady Susan who is never, ever to blame for anything. She also looks fabulous in her gowns, which are genuinely stunning.
A self-confessed Austen fan, director Stillman has made a shrewd choice in using a lesser known work as the basis for his affectionate parody. Using one of her major novels would have been close to sacrilege, especially for her legions of fans. He also has a generally strong sense of the literature of the period. As the film opens, we are introduced to the characters with a copperplate captions and a few words on how they fit in to the proceedings. It harks back to the family trees that would have appeared at the start of the novels at the time.
Stillman fans should enjoy this one, as will anybody who loves a bit of literary fun, but the question is whether it will have a wider appeal. That’s debatable, especially when the imitation is close enough to the original for the only difference to be the laughs.
Love & Friendship is released in cinemas on Friday, 27 May and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 26 May.