American indie writer-director Whit Stillman returns with what may be one of the funniest movies to ever be sourced from 19th century English literature. Stillman based Love & Friendship on Lady Susan, an early novella by Jane Austen, published posthumously. It has never been a well-known work, but now that’s bound to change. However, for those inclined to read a book adaptation before a film, familiarity is unnecessary (I’ve never understood that inclination, anyhow). Above all, advanced knowledge of the book would do little to convey the unique brand of warm cynicism of humanity that Stillman has often expertly exploited for both laughs and insight into our relationships.
Lady Susan Vernon (played by a luminously poised and funny Kate Beckinsale) has raised passive-aggression to an art form of manipulation. As one character notes, “That woman’s a genius … like the serpent in Eden’s garden.” It’s almost as if Lady Susan has turned language into witchcraft to control friends, relatives and lovers, and it’s an incredible thing to behold in the hands of the incredibly literate Stillman. The writer/director has released several novelizations of his films alongside their theatrical release. With this movie, he returns to this technique. Earlier this month he released, Love & Friendship: In Which Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon Is Entirely Vindicated. This marks the first time he has done this since The Last Days of Disco.
Maybe exploring the genre of novelization assures a stronger film for Stillman. His previous work, Damsels In Distress, a film he once admitted to us included at least one regretful decision (A cup of coffee in which director Whit Stillman and I reconsider my negative review of ‘Damsels In Distress’), but is probably better than this critic first gave it credit for (‘Damsels in Distress:’ Stillman dumbs it down after almost a generation in hiding), might have benefited from this technique. The attention to detail must have helped make Love & Friendship a dynamo of the English language. It’s still easy to follow, but most of all, it’s thrilling to watch these characters speak, from the way Lady Susan wields the “Fourth Commandment” to try to get her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) to comply with her wishes to the characterization of the rich but simple Sir James Martin (a sidesplitting Tom Bennett), the man she would like to see Frederica marry.
Sir James may be the film’s secret weapon. He speaks in a halting sort of English that achieves Trump-like heights of brevity, redundancy and inanity. Of his knowledge of “advanced agricultural methods” he says, “A Londoner of the current day must know all sorts of things.” Described as “a bit of a rattle,” Sir James tries vainly to hide his simplicity with language, the yin to Lady Susan’s yang. The contrast is used to hilarious effect often, not least of which is a dance that Sir James delights in with childlike exuberance, dampening the entire affair with an extra bounce in his steps and a grin so wide it saps the energy from the room. It’s the most awkward quadrille committed to a period film.
Stillman also puts another unique but subtle spin on period cinema. With Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh handling the beautiful wardrobe (Lady Susan wears some striking colors), Anna Rackard’s production design and art direction by Louise Mathews, Stillman takes indulging in the period to delightful levels. Observe the workers replacing cobblestones just outside the London home of one unfortunate casualty of Lady Susan’s ways or how a group of men carrying luggage interrupt a pair of characters that have no significance to their workaday lives. The play on humility in this film can be extremely subtle.
Love & Friendship is more than a brilliant variation of the period film or a goof on language and characterization. It reveals the limits of manners to make for civilized society. Stillman exposes just how terrible and futile manners can be. In a world of hyper political correctness, this film reveals that dark side of humanity that compels people to figuratively eat their young for their own comfort. No matter how well the rules of society tell us to behave, there’s no changing the basest of inclinations, behaviors or thoughts.
Love & Friendship runs 93 minutes and is rated PG. It opened this past Friday, May 27, in many theaters in our Miami area, including the indie art houses O Cinema Miami Beach and the Coral Gables Art Cinema, which hosted a preview screening for the purpose of this review. For other screening dates in your neighborhood, visit this link. Roadside Attractions provided all images in this review.