If you’re hungry for some more vaguely repressed, dialogue-heavy period drama, you may well be surprised (but not disappointed) by Love & Friendship.
Kate Beckinsale has form as an Austen heroine with a 1996 TV turn as Emma, and she is a perfect choice to deliver the biting, cynical wit of the movie’s protagonist. Lady Susan Vernon is a near-middle-age, highly attractive and intelligent widow renowned for her manipulative and flirtatious behaviour.
She prowls between stately homes where she has some sort of family or social connection, enjoying the high life that her situation no longer allows thanks to declining funds and no husband-drawn income.
Finding a suitable – i.e. wealthy and foolish – match for her teenage daughter Frederika (played wonderfully by Morfydd Clark) is a high priority, but apparently more to get the girl out of her immaculately styled hair than to see her happy; especially as Frederika could become her competition for the attentions of eligible batchelors, and a few non-batchelors too…
Young, handsome Reginald de Courcy (brother to her sister-in-law by marriage, played by Xavier Samuel) is her latest target, and she seems to relish the challenge he presents as someone who is already aware of her reputation – especially as his suspicious sister is ever-present.
Egged on by her dutifully & lovelessly married, scheming American Friend Alicia (Sevigny), who seems to derive a vicarious pleasure from the subtle destruction and misery Lady Susan leaves in her wake, the main tension of the movie is in whether Lady Susan will triumph or fall in her self-serving machinations.
The key question is: are you on her side, or not?
Love & Friendship is a thoroughly enjoyable and hilarious movie in many ways; Tom Bennett’s gullible, optimistic Sir James Martin steals every scene possible in his fumbling attempts to woo Frederika, and Lady Susan’s uncompromising selfishness often calls for the kind of titter normally reserved for political comedy panel shows.
The cinematography is small-scale but convincing, and actually contributes to the sense that Lady Susan is somewhat trapped in a kind of high-society house arrest, having to maintain her dignified image while depending on the hospitality of others.
We were lucky to catch a Q&A with Whit Stillman immediately after the screening, where he admitted to finding long shots & lengthy scenes kind of boring, and described how he had edited the film for a faster and more energetic pace. Jump cuts and a large emphasis on plot driven dialogue rather than scene-setting stills help the movie zip along, as does the melodramatic orchestral score.
Everything works very well – the only issue I had is that, as when tucking into a good grapefruit, there is an inevitably bitter aftertaste.
Are you prepared to feel as cynical about love and relationships as this movie wants you to? If you try to follow your moral compass through the movie, you’re likely to feel a bit lost; if you ignore it completely, you’ll probably be cheering at every contemptuous put down.
I suppose this kind of tone shouldn’t be a surprise given Whit Stillman’s previous movies; The Last Days of Disco, also starring Beckinsale & Sevigny, has a very similar outlook on the imperfections and egotistical motives of real-world relationships.
But not everyone lives in that world of self-analysis and semi self-loathing. I don’t believe Jane Austen did, based on the body of her mature work. Much of the love people have for those novels isn’t just down to Austen’s exceptional gift for prose and intuition, but the way she champions the realisation of self-sacrifice and mutual respect in truly loving relationships. Academics may convince themselves otherwise, but I think the vast majority of Austen’s readers would probably disagree with them.
Towards the end, there is an ever-so-slightly out of place hint at justification of this tone, in a monologue from James Martin. Stillman couldn’t resist implying there is a noble motive to his portrayal of Lady Susan, ostensibly towards female empowerment – and even this is delivered in such a way that cynical, sarcastic outrage is expected.
Stillman himself said in the Q&A that the movie’s distributor worried audiences would hate the movie due to Lady Susan’s awful character, but he was confident that enough people would be on her side. He singled out Jenn Murray’s deliberately pantomime-ish performance as Lady Manwaring as an essential counterbalance on this point.
I wonder whose side you were on? Did you enjoy the film? Or did you find it hard to cope with Lady Susan’s selfishness?
Whit Stillman also wrote an accompanying novel, titled ’Love & Friendship: In Which Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Is Entirely Vindicated’. Go figure, I suppose!