Love & Friendship
by Hope Madden
Love & Friendship may be the film most likely to satisfy both the truest Jane Austen fan and the passerby who finds her material little more than finely written rom/coms.
This is partly due to writer/director Whit Stillman’s uncanny flair for Austen’s dialog, but more because of his power to mine her prose for more than simple romance and righteous indignation.
The widowed Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale – never better) must rely upon the generosity of her social circle since her husband’s passing. Because of a minor indiscretion at handsome Lord Manwaring’s residence, she finds herself obliged to visit her late husband’s brother and his wife for a time.
Not that any of this suggests a terrible inconvenience for the charming Lady Susan, who’s machinations and maneuvers are a constantly moving chess match with those around her – both the unsuspecting (men, generally) and the aware (women) – serving as her pawns.
It’s a criss-crossing, matchmaking plot of the most delightfully acidic sort. Stillman’s purpose, like Austen’s, is to point out the social barriers and tethers that make true freedom nearly impossible for women of the age. But instead of bucking the system quietly but proudly like Pride and Prejudice’s Jane Bennet, for instance, the film celebrates a heroine who has so mastered the intricate societal rules that she wields them to her benefit.
Lady Vernon is a mercenary, unfeeling charmer – a truly amazing character done proper justice by Beckinsale’s lilting performance. And while watching her bend, cajole and shepherd her pawns to her will is endlessly fascinating, it’s the intimacy shared only with her one true friend Lady Johnson (Chloe Sevigny) that gives the film it’s most wonderfully venomous bite.
As an added bonus, Whitman has stocked his supporting cast with some of Britain’s finest comic talents. A scene-stealing Tom Bennett, in particular, is a laugh riot as lovestruck dolt Sir James Martin.
Since his breakout 1990 film debut Metropolitan, a Jane Austen adaptation seemed somehow inevitable for Stillman. Where most revisions of the author’s texts have accepted her earnest rebellion and longing at face value, though, Stillman finds a wicked wit that suits both the author and his film.