Hot Take: With quick wit and masterful timing (and Kate Beckinsale’s best performance of her career), Love & Friendship is one of the funnier films of 2016.
“I’m not going to like this,” I thought during the opening moments of Love & Friendship. The pace of Whit Stillman’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s epistolary novel Lady Susan is unexpected and catches you off guard. It’s like waking up in a car going 70 miles per hour after falling asleep poolside on a lazy afternoon. Thrust right into the story, we’re bombarded with characters who will provide depth throughout the film but are introduced with such rapid fire succession (and through title cards), your head starts to spin. Don’t worry. The feeling passes. Eventually.
Once we get our bearings and strap in, the ride Love & Friendship takes us on is marvelous. Kate Beckinsale as Lady Susan Vernon, a widow who is considered the most accomplished flirt in all of England, is the stand-out of Love & Friendship. In the first half of 2016, it is now one of three female performances (Sally Field in Hello, My Name Is Doris and Susan Sarandon in The Meddler are the others), we should still be talking about come Awards season. Beckinsale crushes every scene she is in. Her timing and mastery of the script is impeccable.
Speaking of the script, Austen’s work shines in Stillman’s adaptation. Lady Susan is one of Austen’s lesser known works as it was an originally unpublished work that did not make it to print until 50 years after her death. Stillman thought the work to be both “too good to not be known” and “hard to read” due to it’s inaccessible form. Stillman followed the Austen format for converting the 41 letters of Lady Susan into Love & Friendship as this was her method. Both Pride & Prejudice and Sense & Sensibility started as epistolary and were later shifted into dramatized novels. Lady Susan never quite made it there but under the guide of Stillman, the work was adapted in both big screen and novelized form to Love & Friendship.
The film follows Beckinsale’s Lady Susan as she attempts to marry off her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) while searching for a second husband of her own and wrecking havoc socially with a sordid affair with a married man that lives largely in the background and a general disdain for everyone with the exception of her best friend Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny). Johnson lives vicariously through Lady Susan despite threats from her husband (Stephen Fry) that he will move them back to Connecticut (a place comparable to hell, apparently) if she fails to sever her relationship with Susan. I’m not sure what Mrs. Johnson’s husband’s hang up is with Lady Susan. Oh wait, maybe it could be the pair of them rooting for him to die when they’re not talking about Susan’s affairs (or her “affairs”).
By the middle of the film, all worries of not liking the film were erased. By the end, I was delighted in Stillman’s ability to capture Austen’s wit with all the dry and tart humor intact. If you’re a fan of previous Austen adaptations, this might be the best. Unless you count Clueless which is based on Austen’s Emma. Maybe you’re more of an Austen purist. Whatever. If so, Love & Friendship might be the Austen adaptation you’ve been looking for.
“Spoiler Free” Pros
- Tom Bennett’s Sir James Martin Is The Funniest Character of 2016 So Far
Bennett’s Martin is “a bit of a rattle” as Lady Susan’s choice for a suitor for her daughter. Bennett plays his part as a “dumb as a box of rocks” potential ticket to easy street for Frederica. Move Bennett to the short list of Best Supporting Actor candidates as he steals every scene he’s in. Even the ones with Beckinsale.
- The Setting
Capturing the late 18th century isn’t always easy and occasionally lacks authenticity. Love & Friendship looks and feels like the 18th century without the trappings of feeling too dated or too stuffy which may be due to the sharp script.
- That Script
Stillman does an amazing job of piecing together an unfinished work of Austen into something that has all the sense and sensibilities of an Austen piece. It’s electrically charged, comic barbed wire.
“Spoiler Free” Cons
- Still Can’t Wrap My Head Around That Open
Maybe I needed to be knocked off my arse in the first few minutes trying to keep up to settle in to the rest of the film or maybe I’m as slow as Sir James but Love & Friendship dug quite a hole.