Alice Roosevelt Longworth famously quipped: “If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me.” Although she died in 1980 I have a feeling that her ghost is sitting front row center at any movie theater showing Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship, based on a work by Jane Austen; it’s the bitchiest, and funniest, film I’ve seen in ages.
Writer/director Stillman has had one of the strangest careers in moviedom. After graduating from Harvard in the 70’s, he moved to Spain and got a job selling Spanish movies to American television. He wound up running an illustration agency in New York in the 80’s while writing the screenplay for his first movie, Metropolitan, which he eventually self-financed and directed.
That film became something of a cult hit in 1990 bringing him a slew of awards, including an Oscar-nomination for best original screenplay. His follow-up two years later, Barcelona, failed to register with the public but The Last Days of Disco in 1998, starring Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny, turned out to be a modest hit. But then he didn’t make another film for 13 years, the quickly forgotten Damsels in Distress.
And now he shows up with Love & Friendship. There are very few people in the film business who could make only five movies in 25 years and still be taken seriously.
In that regard, he shares a slightly similar career path with Jane Austen. Though her reputation as one of Britain’s greatest writers is now secured, it’s interesting to note that, during her life, she only published four novels.
A Synergistic Effect
So how ironic is it that two of the slowest creators in the history of art would turn out such a sprightly, fast-moving comedic tour de force. The film is based on Austen’s epistolary short novel Lady Susan, although he took the title from an earlier piece of Austen juvenilia, the (misspelled) Love and Freindship.
The lady in question, the widow Susan Vernon, is known in 1790’s England for possessing few scruples and even less morals. When the film opens she’s being kicked out of the country estate of Lord Manwaring. It seems that during her stay she took time off grieving her deceased husband to ensnare Lord M. with her charms … much to the dismay of the current Lady M.
Susan heads to the home of her dead husband’s relatives and, once there, begins her scheming anew, plotting to force her young daughter Frederica into marriage with Sir James Martin, perhaps the dumbest man in all of England. At the same time, she’s set her sights on the son of her current hosts, the young Reginald DeCourcy.
Given her beauty, wit and intelligence it seems unlikely that Susan isn’t going to get everything she wants, even if most of the people around her are doing everything in their power to derail her plans.
The Lady is a Tramp
Lady Susan is certainly unique among Austen’s leading characters—she’s the villain! She’s doesn’t mistakenly hurt people like the privileged Emma Woodhouse in Emma or the emotionally extravagant Marianne Dashwood from Sense & Sensibility. She’s a hypocritical, self-serving, amoral minx … and you can’t help but love everything about her, praying she gets everything she wants. She’s such a spectacular creation you don’t even mind if a few people get hurt on her journey to success.
By far the most enjoyable part of Love & Friendship is watching people battle each other with a dazzling smile and a devastatingly funny witticism delivered in beautiful language that’s been polished to a brittle brilliance. Beckinsale gets the plumb role of Susan and goes to town with it. No matter how awful her actions, she can selfishly justify every single duplicitous move. It’s comedy gold watching Beckinsale, time and again, begin a sentence with repentance but by the time she’s reached the end she’s in high dudgeon having recast her victim as her persecutor and her greedy machinations as acts of charity.
Stillman’s script is a wonder of elegant and stylish dialogue conveying both the height of sophistication and the basest of human nature. It’s a literate screenplay steeped in the vocabulary of Austen that is nevertheless accessible and, at times, laugh-out-loud funny.
Susan’s compatriot in the film, played by Beckinsale’s Last Days co-star Sevigny, is an American gold digger named Alicia married to a wealthy English peer (the delightful Stephen Fry.) Susan confides in and relies on Alicia; the two together are as morally bankrupt as you can imagine. Sevigny has a fascinating way of using a simple, quiet look—a raised eyebrow here, a slightly pursed lip there—to express volumes about her character.
Morfydd Clark plays Susan’s daughter and does wonders mixing obedience with defiance. Xavier Samuel is the love interest DeCourcy and it’s fun watching him being bamboozled when Susan turns on the full lethal force of her charms.
A host of fabulous British actors fill in the supporting roles including Justin Edwards, Emma Greenwell, and Jenn Murray; truly funny are James Fleet and Jemma Redgrave as a slightly daft husband and his doting, if somewhat irritated, wife.
The stop press news, however, is Tom Bennett who, while playing the lunk-headed Martin, gives a textbook example of how to steal a scene without stealing it. The character, in Bennett’s hands, is magnificently, even preternaturally, obtuse and every second Bennett is on screen his inventions are riveting yet, at the same time, completely “in character.” There’s an Oscar nomination in store for him next year.
But then, this film’s going to be highly blessed during the 2017 awards season. Stillman’s direction perfectly serves his screenplay; it’s direct and unfussy and the pace of the film is appropriately breathless. Love & Friendship is a sumptuous visual feast thanks to outstanding production design from Anna Rackard and Louise Mathews’ art direction. And the gorgeous period costumes from Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh draw gasps.
Love & Friendship will delight anyone looking for a good laugh… especially one not involving, as is current practice, bodily fluids. Austen fans will appreciate, too, that Stillman has taken one of her more slight works and filled it out in true Austen style. Not only would Jane enjoy this movie, I think she might even be a bit jealous.
Ted Hoover is a Pittsburgh-based writer and critic.