Love & Friendship (2016) / Romance-Comedy

MPAA Rated: PG for some thematic elements
Running Time: 92 min.

Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Xavier Samuel, Morfydd Clark, Tom Bennett, Chloe Sevigny, Emma Greenwell, Stephen Fry, Jenn Murray, Lochlann O'Mearain, Justin Edwards
Director: Whit Stillman
Screenplay: Whit Stillman (based on the novella, "Lady Susan", by Jane Austen)
Review published May 31, 2016

Set in late 18th Century England, Kate Beckinsale (Stonehearst Asylum, Total Recall) plays recently widowed and unquestionably un-wealthy Lady Susan Vernon, visiting (or, more accurately, mooching off of) her brother-in-law Charles (Edwards, The Duchess) and his wife Catherine (Greenwell, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) with intentions to use her prodigious skill in flirtation on Catherine's handsome younger brother Reginald (Samuel, Fury), who is a man of some means. Lady Susan also aims to get her teenage daughter Frederica (Clark, Madame Bovary) hitched as well, setting her sights on Sir James Martin (Bennett, "PhoneShop"), a man who is also of great wealth, albeit without a lick of intelligence, but he does take a liking to the girl enough to continue to pursue her despite her reticence at his "silliness." Difficulties abound, as Lady Susan has a few entanglements of her own in the form of Lord Manwaring (O'Mearain, Hard Times) who is married to another woman, and a few others near the situation have their suspicions that Susan's intentions are less than honorable all around, even though her crafty and manipulative ways keep her from being pinned down for sure.

Whit Stillman (Damsels in Distress) directs his first screen adaptation with Jane Austen's little-read (comparatively) posthumously published epistolary novella, "Lady Susan", an unfinished early work involving letters sent back and forth between Susan and her confidante from America, Alicia Johnson (Sevigny, Mrs. Harris), that has been punched up to form, complete with all of the witty banter and eccentric character touches you'd expect from any Whitman work, regardless of period.   Some of that Whitman charm amid the bourgeois class comes into play right from his opening roll call introductions, which frames each character for a few seconds in circle vignettes that also say a few words about their names, their relations, and a touch of their personality, as presented within Austen's novella.  Though these touches didn't always help me keep the sizable cast completely straight within the course of this film, it does set the tone early as to its old-fashioned nature, borrowing elements from even the silent era of film, and a touch of the theater, to get as as far back as possible to the time of Jane Austen as we can within the world of cultured cinema. 

Kate Beckinsale, who worked with Whit Stillman in 1998's The Last Days of Disco (which also features Chloe Sevigny), is a revelation as Lady Susan, perfectly exuding beauty, intelligence, contempt for others, and utter deviance in equal measure. It's a confident performance to play both the protagonist of the piece as well as the film's selfish heavy, perfectly crafted for an actress of her skills. Even if we're not always sure at all times what her ultimate game plan is, or even if we're suppose to sympathize with either her or those she's taking advantage of, it's always fun to watch her character as she wriggles in and out of seemingly any situation presented before her with wit and flair to spare.  Though Beckinsale deserves the accolades, she's not the only scene stealer, as Tom Bennett's portrayal of the delightfully daft Sir James Martin will likely make you sad whenever he off the screen for any scene following his initial introduction about a third of the way into the film.

Love & Friendship is shot brightly and handsomely, both inside and outdoors, by Richard Van Oosterhout (Rosie), with a rich attention to period and costumes that may see a few Oscar nods, though one hopes its May release in the United States won't allow it to be forgotten come ballot time.  Those who dislike period pieces, particularly ones where most of the action occurs through dialogue, inflections, and the subtlest of traces in body language that necessitate absolute attention to follow the plot, may find the film difficult to stay engaged by, but for those who enjoy well-acted and finely textured stories about manners and etiquette, there's no better author than Jane Austen, especially when filtered through the witty and surprisingly like-mind of Stillman.

Qwipster's rating:

2016 Vince Leo