Based on the Jane Austen short story ‘Lady Susan’, Love and Friendship tells of the exploits of Lady Susan Vernon (Beckinsale), a manipulative widower determined to bring herself the financial stability she firmly believes she is entitled to. Confiding in her friend Alicia Johnson (Sevigny), she moves to her sister in laws country manor determined to marry eligible young bachelor Reginald DeCourcy (Samual), while hedging her marital bets with wealthy Lord Manwaring (O’Mearáin). At the same time, she also attempts to convince her partially estranged submissive daughter Frederica (Clark) to wed affluent blockhead Sir James Martin (Bennett).
Love and Friendship truly triumphs from being based on a short story. The limited scope gives the scriptwriters a core story and a restricted quantity of characters to manipulate and augment rather than coldly reshaping and stripping down a monster such as Pride and Prejudice. The relatively reduced storyline gives the film an edge when crafting a wicked sense of humour and cutting dialogue. The dry biting receptivity is never-ending and is a joy to behold, never has Austen felt so lacking in refinement and so teeming with emotional venom.
Remarkably Love and Friendship is nothing particularly spectacular to look at, the visuals could easily stand in for any number of ITV Victorian dramas. This is a shrewd move by Stillman though as all attention is concentrated squarely on the action and dialogue, and at a fraction of the cost. That’s not to say the costumes and scenery aren’t excellent, just that the cinematography merely limits itself to necessities rather than revelling in swollen narcissistic scenescapes.
Susan and Alicia swirl intrigue and cunning like a pair of society witches, observing gleefully as their Machiavellian schemes sprinkle down like snowflakes on the unsuspecting suitors. Susan inhabits a carefully crafted bubble of orbiting sycophants and is in a permanent haste to avert blame to others as her sly ways are uncovered. Lady Susan is a masterclass of character acting and development as she totally controls those around her from start to finish. Beckinsale is on absolute top form and perhaps puts in the best performance of her career. She superbly manages to spit controlled viciousness at all around her while retaining the awkward tongue of the era. Bennett is almost too stupid to believe as wealthy pompous idiot Sir James, but the increasing impatience and unnoticed condescension of those around him yank the character back into a credible space. There’s not a single slip up in casting with Samual, Clark and Sevigny especially shining in their subservient roles under the inexorable Beckinsale leviathan.
The only real blunder Stillman seems to have made is the initial introduction to the characters. Within the opening three or four minutes, he textually introduces around fifteen characters along with their roles, relationships and pithy taglines. The result is a fairly overwhelming mental pressure to remember each individuals details, which eventually becomes unnecessary as he nicely introduces each as part of storyline anyway (You don’t have to write any of this down, the slides will be available on-line at the end of the presentation).
Love and Friendship is one of those rare treats which is simply impossible to turn away from. Every scene and piece of dialogue moves the story or characters forward in some way and it’s moderately short running time works nicely in its favour. In a world bursting at the seams with Victorian costume drama, Love and Friendship has carved out a wonderful little niche for itself and is a fully enjoyable outing.
4 / 5
Dir: Whit Stillman
Scr: Whit Stillman
Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Xavier Samual, Morfydd Clark, Tom Bennett, Lochlann O’Mearain, Chloe Sevigny
Prd: Lauranne Bourrachot, Katie Holly, Whit Stillman
Music: Benjamin Esdraffo
DOP: Richard van Oosterhout
Country: Ireland, Netherlands, France, USA
Run Time: 92 Minutes