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Film Review: Love & Friendship

Love & Friendship (2016; Directed by Whit Stillman)

Whit Stillman’s stinging, practically deadpan cinematic take on Jane Austen’s early novel Lady Susan is a little marvel. Starring Kate Beckinsale as the unabashedly self-interested, acerbically intelligent, and masterfully manipulative Lady Susan Vernon, Love & Friendship is a welcome left turn in the recent trajectory of screen adaptations of Austen’s work. Often emphasizing bosom-heaving romance at the expense of the late 18th-/early 19th-century novelist’s biting wit and subtly subversive satire of the manners, standards, and social mores of Regency England, popular Austen adaptations of recent decades reside (in the hearts and minds of their mainstream chick-flick fans more so than their creators, if we’re being fair) in a gauzy space of gentlemen and ladies fulfilling their romantic hopes as well as their socioeconomic requirements within a set of well-defined rules that everyone recognizes and gladly abides by. In the face of the post-Sexual Revolution free-for-all of modern courtship, many women (and probably a lot of men, too) locate in Jane Austen’s depiction of the society of her time a simplicity, innocence, and intelligibility that is comforting.

At the risk of sounding like a pedantic literary critic, such conclusions, valid though they may be in the stirred soul of the viewer or the reader, are nearly the opposite of Jane Austen’s abiding intent, as much as it can be descried at our historical remove. Austen’s novels so unerringly reproduced the byzantine and frequently unspoken standards of behaviour that governed every element of public interactions in the comfortable classes of her time and place in order to probe them, puncture them, and find them wanting, even to label them as patently ludicrous. Her prose is precisely balanced to destabilize the mannered assumptions of England’s landed gentry via its own polite discourse. Romantic fulfillment and moral equilibrium are maintained in her novels as literary conventions, but Austen’s agile mind and compositional dexterity are doggedly turned to demonstrating the weakness of reliance on convention.

Stillman’s Love & Friendship gets this truth about Austen more correct than any recent adaptation of note (even the beknighted BBC costume dramas have displayed a soft-focus tendency lately). It’s a sharper pure comedy than any Austen film adaptation I’ve ever seen (with the possible exception of Clueless), treating romantic love as just another delicious punchline. It’s debatable whether Stillman selects a lesser-known minor Austen work (Lady Susan was likely written before Austen was 20 years old, and is thus sometimes classified as juvenilia, much like the separate story whose title it borrows; it also was not published in her lifetime, unlike her big six novels) in order to push her sharp wit to the foreground via material not so canonically rigid and planted in the public mind, or if the material itself, less beholden to literary convention and even freely rebellious in the face of such standards, demands such an approach. Either way, Love & Friendship constructs a convincing simulacrum of proper social etiquette and mediated courtship behaviour before primly revealing its hypocrisy and ridiculousness with dry delight.

Like other Austen novels, Love & Friendship involves the marriage relations, social interactions, and romantic entanglements of a compelx web of landed gentry, aristocrats, and occasional lower-register figures. Stillman, who wrote the screenplay as well as directed it, does a bang-up job establishing his dramatis personae and their intereweaving connections, so I won’t approximate it with an involved synopsis in print. His technique for introducing characters is clever and often amusing: characters pose in subtle post-produced oval frames with their names and brief (sometimes mocking) descriptions of their role, like descriptive portraits. He also ably approximates the epistolary nature of Austen’s novel on occasion, advancing plot and character (and even wringing out wry laughs) by displaying in onscreen titles the words being read in letters between the characters.

Plot-wise, it’s worth detailing at least that Lady Susan, a young widow without an income of her own, is simultaneously seeking an advantageous marriage match for her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) and for herself. Suddenly rushing away from a previous living situation with the lordly Manwarings after a scandalous dalliance with the Lord, Susan lands at Churchill, the estate of her brother-in-law, Charles Vernon (Justin Edwards). She becomes ever more intimately acquainted with the dashing young bachelor Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel), the brother of Vernon’s wife Catherine (Emma Greenwell), while her daughter seems to be destined for a match with a hilariously dimwitted but unfailingly cheerful baronet, Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett). The abiding disapproval of DeCourcy’s family, shocked by Susan’s unsavoury reputation and lack of wealth, ever threatens her contact with Reginald, and similar disapproval by the husband of her American best friend Alicia Johnson (Chloë Sevigny; Stephen Fry is Mr. Johnson in a brief cameo) consistently dogs their conspiratorial conversations.

It’s evident from very little exposure to Beckinsale’s charming and clever puppet-mistress that her smarts and insight into the psychology of others around her will win her the day. It’s a modern conceit, perhaps, that Lady Susan’s blithe unconcern for the ruling mores of her society and her sly manipulation of social assumptions and sensibilities results in great success rather than a conclusive moral upbraiding. Austen’s text reserves more punishment for her transgressions, but even then it’s mild compared to the fates of similar intriguing women in her other novels.

The dominant impression of Love & Friendship is that conceptions of romance are useful only to direct outcomes, to position people in a desired manner, as the sweet carrots utilized in lieu of a firmer stick. Stillman’s film is a minor wonder for this subversion of romantic comedy convention, yes. But it’s also sharp and funny on a consistent basis, and respects Austen’s subtly acerbic barbs with a febrile reverence. The film’s comic timing is exquisite. Stillman and his editor Sophie Corra hold the pauses after end-of-scene punchlines for just a brief beat before Mark Suozzo’s chamber-music score cues in at just the right moment, like a sophisticated, inherently satisfying laugh-track. Finally, you will find yourself thinking with every finely-modulated and impeccably delivered quip, a screen version of Jane Austen’s work that understands and intelligently conveys the scalpel-sharp wit of her writing to full effect.

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Categories: Film, Literature, Reviews
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