The new adaptation of her novella Lady Susan (confusingly, Austen also wrote a novella called Love and Freindship [sic], but this film is not an adaptation of that) has its romantic elements, sure. But it's mostly an incredibly funny comedy of manners about how to deal with those unpleasant people who insist on forcing themselves into your life.
What's more, it just might make you a believer in Kate Beckinsale, who had a number of rich roles in British film and TV before she broke through in the US with Pearl Harbor and mostly ended up playing a bunch of wives and girlfriends.
In Love & Friendship, for better or worse, she's the Walter White of polite British society, charging into quiet drawing rooms with only her self-interest in mind and attempting to finagle her way into an advantageous marriage, all while marrying off her daughter to someone the poor girl has no interest in.
It will be hard to find a sharper comedy this summer than Love & Friendship (which will arrive on Amazon Prime later in the year, for all you streaming fans). Here are just a few of the reasons why.
1) The film's structure is unexpectedly brilliant
Director Whit Stillman's screenplay for the film tackles one of Lady Susan's most difficult adaptation issues head-on.
See, Lady Susan is an epistolary story — meaning it's told entirely via letters the characters write to each other — so the only action depicted on the page is somebody writing a letter (if you want to be really literal about it).
The comedy in much of Austen's work comes from the gap between what people say and what they mean, or between what's actually happening and what people understand. The movie screen, which tends to literalize everything, makes the funnier aspects of her writing difficult to adapt.
Stillman's solution is kind of brilliant. For the most part, he only presents scenes the characters would have talked about in their letters to each other, and the hidden subtext — the love affairs and quarrels that people would leave out of their correspondence — stays off-screen, for viewers to tease out on their own based on reading between the lines of dialogue.
Indeed, many scenes center on the characters delivering letters to each other. Stillman's ability to compartmentalize text and subtext allows the story's comedy to really shine.
2) The central character is a true original
As the Lady Susan who gave the novella its title, Beckinsale gets to play a type of character that women are rarely allowed to portray onscreen — that of a thoroughly desperate, unpleasant manipulator. Susan's husband has died, and she's running out of money, to the point that she can no longer keep her daughter, Frederica, in school.
As such, she has to push up against the limits of what people are willing to do to help her, to abuse their kindness and shove her way into their homes and lives. She attempts to seduce a much younger man. She tries to set up her daughter with a huge dolt. And she constantly seeks the company of an American friend, even though the friend's husband doesn't especially want Susan around.
Beckinsale is great in the role, pretending not to hear the insults people mutter through gritted teeth whenever she's around. The film preserves some of the moral comeuppance Susan faced in the novella, while simultaneously delighting in the novella's secret sense of glee at how she blows apart the rules of propriety. She's never met a wall she couldn't build a door in.
3) Stillman's visual style creates energy in unexpected ways
Love & Friendship features some nifty stylistic flourishes that give the movie a sense of play. For instance, Stillman introduces the characters via little spotlights that encircle their heads, with text to explain their relationships to each other. The effect is similar to the small illustrations that accompanied characters in novels published during Austen's time, and it's always delightful to see it pop up.
But for the most part, he films everything by hanging back in wide shot, letting the characters move freely and giving them room to breathe. Nobody feels crowded by the camera, and Stillman moves it very rarely.
The result will make you feel like a time traveler who's visiting the era and peeking through doors and windows to watch these people discuss the issues of grave importance to them. Austen's work is about webs of relationships and how they either propagate themselves or deteriorate. By hanging back, Stillman lets his performers carry the day, and they're uniformly excellent.
4) Did I mention it's funny?
The scene in which Frederica's intended arrives to visit is one of the great comedy scenes of the year. He's an idiot, but he has money. So nobody is going to just tell him to his face that nothing he's saying makes much sense. The scene proceeds as he talks and talks and talks and talks, and the other characters simply smile, befuddled by everything he's saying. And that's not the film's only astoundingly funny event.
Stillman has always had a very dry wit, which he's brought to films like Metropolitan and Barcelona. And he uses that wit to pluck apart social orders, to examine the ways people relate to each other and either do or don't say what needs to be said.
Before Love & Friendship, I don't know that I would have listed him as someone I'd love to see adapt Austen; now that I see how well his proclivities overlap with her work, I sort of want him to adapt everything she's ever written.
5) Every part is perfectly cast
Love & Friendship is filled with ringers. Stephen Fry pops up in what amounts to a one-scene cameo, and he's wickedly funny. Chloë Sevigny is great as his wife, Susan's American friend who finds herself constantly dealing with the protagonist's latest schemes. And Xavier Samuel is deliciously oblivious as the young man Susan tries to wed.
But even the actors you've never heard of give wonderful performances. Love & Friendship marks one of Morfydd Clark's first film roles, and as Frederica she manages to transform the character's innocence into the basis for comedy instead of just a metaphor for everything Susan might destroy. That same level of skill is evident in every member of the ensemble.
Love & Friendship is briskly paced (just 92-minutes long!), perfectly cast, and sharply written and directed. It's the kind of summer treat that will make you happy the art houses stay open during the long months when sci-fi spectaculars and action thrillers fill the multiplex. It's the definition of a delight.
Love & Friendship is playing in some theaters now and will expand throughout the country in the month of May. It will be available on Amazon Prime later in the year.