LOVE & FRIENDSHIP (Ireland/Netherlands/France/USA/G/93mins)
Directed by Whit Stillman. Starring Kate Beckinsale, Chloe Sevigny, Tom Bennett, James Fleet, Morfydd Clark, Emma Greenwell, Jenn Murray, Lochlann O’Mearáin, Sophie Radermacher, Stephen Fry, Ross MacMahon, Justin Edwards.
THE PLOT: Life for the single high society girl in 1790s London is a tough one, but widowed temptress Lady Susan (Beckinsale) has a distinct advantage – namely, a fine body and a complete lack of scruples or decency. It’s evident in her long-suffering daughter, Frederica (Clark), kicked out of boarding school for both running away once too often and because her mother refuses to pay the school fees. Forcing herself upon the happy home of her late husband’s brother, Charles Vernon (Edwards), Lady Susan is soon giving the latter’s impressionable young brother-in-law, Reginald DeCourcy (Fleet), a bloodrush or two – much to the distress of his sister, Catherine (Greenwell), the lady of the house. Helping Lady Susan in her cunning plans to marry into money is her old friend Alicia Johnson (Sevigny), even if the latter’s older husband (Fry) insists that his wife never mix with this terrible influence. With the bumbling Sir James Martin (Bennett) presenting himself as a suitor for a horrified Frederica, Lady Susan knows she’s got her work cut out for her if she is to secure herself a comfortable future…
THE VERDICT: Despite the fact that Whit Stillman is a very, very, very nice man, and is clearly intelligent, witty and insightful, it’s always bothersome that the man’s films were never walked the walk the walk. The ideas were great, the scripts often packed some sweet zingers and chucklesome home truths, but, from those early outings, ‘Metropolitan’ (1990) and ‘Barcelona’ (1994) to the recent back-door mumblecore comeback ‘Damsels In Distress’ (2011), Whit Stillman’s movies always felt stilted and stiff. Like Hal Hartley in a Penneys beret. Or a student Woody Allen in a cravat.
Suffice to say, expectations for ‘Love & Friendship’ were low. Here was Stillman, barely back out of the woods (‘Damsels’ didn’t quite reach the parts, critically or commercially), shooting a sunny period piece in rainy Ireland, with his old ‘Last Days Of Disco’ duo, Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny. The former had come and gone as a box-office also-ran, and Sevigny is still working her way through the growing pains of being a former indie teen queen. Which can’t be easy for Chloe, given that she seems to be slowly morphing into Marty Feldman.
So, you can imagine the surprise when this adaptation of a lesser-known Jane Austen novella by a lesser-loved New York filmmaker with two recovering career actresses turned out to be a hoot. Beckinsale is perfectly cast as the “manipulative, beautiful and fascinating” (as Whitman puts it) Lady Susan, cunning and conniving in the extreme when it gets to bagging herself a rich husband and a strong lover. Even if that’s a two-man job.
Pretty much stealing the show though is English comic actor Tom Bennett, known here for TV’s quite funny ‘PhoneShop’ and the Chris O’Dowd dud Family Tree. Playing the gloriously gormless Sir James Martin as a cross between Hugh Laurie’s Prince Regent in ‘Blackadder The Third’ and Darren Boyd’s Horatio in Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain’s ‘Ladies And Gentlemen’ (2007), Bennett hits Sellers-esque heights of brilliant buffoonery.
There’s still that smell of student film shortcomings – you can tell a lot about a filmmaker by how natural the extras look – but all of that fades away as the wickedness and the wry humour kicks in…
Review by Paul Byrne

Love & Friendship
Review by Paul Byrne
4.0Wicked & wry
  • filmbuff2011

    Whit Stillman could give Terence Malick a run for his money. With just five films made in 26 years, his output isn’t exactly prolific. But yet each of his films is distinctive enough to make it a treat each time around. His latest, Love And Friendship, sees him apply his customary wit to the world of Jane Austen. It’s a very happy marriage.

    Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) is recently widowed and must now find a way into the hearts and minds of her in-laws. She will do this by ‘visiting’ them, i.e. ingratiating her presence on them and charming them to allow her and flighty, simple-minded daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) to stay at their country residence, Churchill. She arrives in a flurry of compliments along with her American friend Alicia (Chloe Sevigny), where she is re-united with Catherine (Emma Greenwell) and Charles (Justin Edwards). She sets her sights on Catherine’s brother Reginald (Xavier Samuel), as a way of settling in. But she doesn’t count on the fact that Frederica is drawn to him too, even though she’s engaged to ‘blockhead’ James (Tom Bennett), who doesn’t know how many Commandments there are…

    Given the many adaptations of Austen’s work, it surprising that nobody has tackled this story until now. Based on the incomplete epistolary novella Lady Susan, which was published after the author’s death, Love And Friendship recalls many typically lovely Austen chamber dramas where the only dirt is a speck of dust in a character’s eye. Adapted by Whitman, who added elements of his own and expanded on some of the characters like dim-bulb James, the film plays out like an Oscar Wilde play. It’s even got some of those Wilde-style spring-loaded zingers which come straight from Austen herself. There’s a lightness of touch to it which shows the more playful, comical side of Austen, as the characters bounce off each other to often hilarious effect.

    The cast rise to the challenge admirably. Described by Whitman as a likeable scorpion, Lady Susan is a fascinating character. The often under-rated Beckinsale does a superb job here. She brings some precision comic timing and just the right amount of credible scheming which makes the character manipulative but not in a cruel way (we’ll leave that to Thomas Hardy). When she’s finished hanging up her guns as Selene in the Underworld films, she should do more films like this. Whitman allows each of his cast members to shine, even in the smaller roles.

    Shot entirely on location in Dublin, the period detail, locations and costumes look far above the small budget that the film was actually made on. But what really shines through in this film is the dynamite script, which mustn’t have been all that easy to adapt, considering the fragmented nature of Austen’s novella. Whitman has done a wonderful job of keeping it all relevant, witty, sophisticated and charming. As the credits roll a little too soon, you could easily spend another half an hour with these characters. A delightful surprise from the idiosyncratic Whitman. ****

  • emerb

    Eighteen years after they made “The Last Days of Disco” together, director Whit Stillman reunites with Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny for his latest film, “Love & Friendship”. It is an adaptation of Jane Austen’s short story, “Lady Susan”, a novella that wasn’t published until well after her death in 1871. This movie is a superbly sharp, lively, charming and clever period piece that illustrates
    the director’s talent for portraying both witty banter and romance constrained by custom and etiquette. While he may only yet have a few films to his name, after this release, I think he is likely to become well-known and in much demand. Not only does “Love & Friendship” deliver on the comedy of manners front, but it’s also a very funny and completely unapologetic portrait of a superbly conniving and clever woman, the “Lady Susan” of the title.

    To begin the film, Stillman sets the tone by introducing his numerous characters by displaying their portraits, names and defining characteristics across the screen. This is a quirky, original feature although I felt that I was getting bogged down in all the names and by the end of this introduction I hadn’t remembered any of them – maybe that’s just me!

    The story centres on a brilliant, self-aware, haughty schemer, “Lady Susan” (Kate Beckinsale), who is always one step ahead of the rest and reputed to be the biggest flirt in England. Her one equal is her good friend and confidante, an American, Mrs. Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny), with whom she shares her schemes. The pair view marriage as a means to an end and both long for the demise of Alicia’s respectable husband (Stephen Fry) and are disappointed when it doesn’t come. Lady Susan is a widow with depleted finances who, when we first meet her is swiftly leaving the Langford estate (owned by Lord Manwaring) and taking up residence with her in-laws. Her plan, initially, is to win the affectations of Reginald De Courcy (Xavier Samuel), the handsome, younger brother of Catherine Vernon (Emma Greenwell), the sister-in-law. The plan seems to be going well until Lady Susan’s daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark), arrives at the estate, having run away from school. Susan finds a prospective husband for Frederica, an utterly ridiculous but wealthy and available man – Sir
    James Martin (Tom Bennett), who calls peas “tiny green balls” and a “novelty vegetable.” However, Lady Susan becomes unsure, does she want Martin for her daughter or herself?

    The performances are uniformly top notch. While Sevigny is dependably good and Bennett is a sheer delight, “Love & Friendship” would simply not work without the superb Kate Beckinsale. She has always shone in period pieces, but here more than ever. She gives a perfectly controlled and self-aware performance, playing Lady Susan as a manipulator so devilish that she can wrap everybody around her little finger and quite simply nobody can match her cunning. The less well-known Tom Bennett as the delightful idiot Sir James Martin steals every moment he has in the film, whether he’s dancing ridiculously in a ballroom or miscounting the number of Biblical commandments.

    “Love & Friendship” more than delivers on every level and is a pleasure to watch from start to finish. It’s very funny portrait of a remarkably clever woman and a bewitching schemer whose manipulation of people and situations is a sheer joy to watch. It’s so much fun to listen to her unique take on life and to immerse yourself in the ridiculous entanglements and the strict social rules of the time. Stillman takes the characters, the plot and the sentences of Jane Austen’s novella, shaping and revising them to produce perhaps one of the best screen adaptions of her novels ever made. This is a film you should not miss.