A sumptuous period setting, superb period costumes and the comic writing of one of our greatest and most beloved authors, all combined to produce a movie of visual and auditory delight in Love and Friendship.
The movie is based on a little-known novella Jane Austen wrote in her teenage years called Lady Susan, and the filmmakers borrowed the title Love and Friendship from another of her works created around this time. Whit Stillman (Damsels in Distress) directed and wrote the screenplay for this movie version, which is sure to win over even the most ardent and pickiest of Austen’s fans.
The characters are pure Austen, the dialogue as crisp and sharp as a cut diamond. The repartee, particularly between the sexes, creates a light, effervescent comedy. A highlight lies in the character introductions, complete with names and descriptions on screen, which unfold in a spoof-like manner guaranteed to charm.
At the heart of Love and Friendship is the character of Lady Susan Vernon, played with flawless comic timing and understatement by Kate Beckinsale. Lady Susan is a recent widow, who has a reputation as a bit of a man-eater – even a cougar. Beautiful, ruthless and brilliant, Lady Susan is determined to find rich husbands for herself and her daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark). Staying with in laws on a luscious country estate, Lady Susan entrenches herself like a queen bee hatching her plots, manipulating everyone around her with aplomb. Her foil is her American friend, Alicia Johnson (Chloë Sevigny), who delights in hearing Lady Susan’s machinations and applauding her on her cleverness.
Love and Friendship is unusual for an Austen work as its focus isn’t a great love affair between a man and a woman. At its heart, it is about bright, ambitious women, born into a society where they have little control over their lives, and how they manipulate men to their advantage. All of the ladies in this genteel world do it to a varying degree.
But Lady Susan is the master of it, and uses all of her quite considerable talents to fight and claw for survival. The audience grudgingly admires her – even while condemning her ruthlessness and her cold attitude toward her daughter – due to her brilliance. Those around her are just pawns in a game.
The male characters are all a bit dunce-like and become puppets that Lady Susan pulls the strings on at will, particularly the handsome and eligible Reginald DeCourcy (played by Australian Xavier Samuel) and the charmingly stupid “blockhead” Sir James Martin – a hilarious performance by Tom Bennett, which is reminiscent of the deadpan comic genius of Ricky Gervais.
Similar in some ways to the style and comedy of Merchant Ivory’s adaptation of E.M. Forster’s A Room With A View, the movie is at heart a character study, and as such, develops slowly. The language is very nineteenth century and can be tricky to understand until the story has unspooled. If you crave high-paced action from a movie, then Love and Friendship is probably not your cup of tea. For everyone else, the wait is definitely worth it – this is not just for lovers of Austen.
THE REEL SCORE: 8/10