Director: Whit Stillman
Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Chloe Sevigny, Xavier Samuel and Stephen Fry
Running Time: 93 minutes
Release Date: May 27th
At first glance, Whit Stillman and Jane Austen look like strange bedfellows. He’s a very modern chronicler of middle-class New Yorkers, defined by their flaky relationships, meandering ambitions and tart tongues. She’s a novelist whose characters are trapped in their time – beholden to restrictive etiquette, obligations and even financial penury.
So it’s surprising and gratifying that Stillman has, in Austen’s little-known Lady Susan, found a period piece that suits his voice perfectly.
The plot concerns Susan (Kate Beckinsale) who, following some scandalous rumours, retreats to her in-laws’ estate. While there, she is determined to work as a matchmaker for herself and her daughter Frederica.
Love & Friendship is sharp, slightly acidic, lively, elegant and funny. Austen’s books (and her films) are often about regret and romantic bad luck. This, however, is the most overtly comedic adaptation of her work.
The introduction of the characters works a treat: Everyone’s introduced staring at the camera and with their name and a description in onscreen text. This helps us sort through the thicket of so many characters, and it’s a vehicle for some jokes too – such as one character staring lustily at another while the text is describing them.
This is a help when the dense period dialogue kicks in, and you’re expected to keep track of what they’re saying, what they’re hiding and what they actually mean.
Stillman expands on Austen’s short, epistolary novel, showing his gift for writing acerbic women and rich dolts, as he did in the recent Damsels in Distress.
He makes great use of Beckinsale – better than any other director actually, including heavyweights like Martin Scorsese, who directed one of her worst performances in The Aviator. Love & Friendship and Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco are Beckinsale’s finest hours. The actress seems an enigma to filmmakers; someone who should be a much bigger star than she is. The camera likes her, she’s great value in interviews, but she’s sometimes stiff when the movie cameras roll. Stillman brings out her charm and humour. (Funnily enough, my other favourite Beckinsale performance is as the villain in the much disliked Total Recall remake.)
Part of the reason for Austen’s continued popularity, of course, is that her themes are universal and eternal: Worrying about money and waiting for the right person before settling down are problems that plague us to this day. And you might think that negging (the art of paying a compliment that’s an insult in disguise) is new, but it’s right at home in the drawing rooms of Austenland. “He’s handsome,” Susan sighs about one suiter, “in a calf kind of way”.