Directed by: Whit Stillman
Premise: Based on the novella “Lady Susan” by Jane Austen. Set in 19th century England, the recently widowed Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale) plays an elaborate game of seduction and subterfuge to find a husband for her daughter and a new man for herself.
What Works: Humor isn’t a quality that’s typically associated with 19th century period pictures but Love & Friendship is actually very funny if the viewer gets the humor. Jane Austen’s literary works are popular because of their romantic stories but a feature that is sometimes underappreciated by mainstream audiences and missing from some film adaptations of her writings is Austen’s derision of the classism and sexism of 19th century British high society. Love & Friendship captures that quality of her work perhaps better than any other film adaptation of a Jane Austen text. The characters operate under the stringent social rules of the time and the filmmakers find comedy in the absurdity of formality. The humor is embedded in the formal dialogue and the nuances of the performances and for viewers who pay close attention, Love & Friendship has a lot of sly wit. The film is led by Kate Beckinsale, an actress who has rarely gotten the attention or projects commiserate with her talents. Beckinsale is cast as Lady Susan Vernon, a woman of questionable morality (for the time) who is also a master manipulator. Beckinsale is great in this role. At no point does she try to apologize for Lady Susan’s behavior or make her vulnerable. Instead, Lady Susan is akin to characters like Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) in House of Cards or Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) in Thank You For Smoking. She is always in control of the situation and manipulates other people in such a way that they don’t realize they are being handled. The character is frequently given terrible things to say which Beckinsale delivers perfectly; by all rights we should hate this woman but a well deliver insult can be disarming and the movie is so light and Lady Susan is so watchable that the viewer’s better judgment is overcome. Love & Friendship also includes a notable supporting performance by Tom Bennett as Sir James Martin, the would-be suitor of Lady Susan’s daughter. Sir James is an idiot who is also socially awkward and Bennett throws himself into the role. That offers him a chance to be funny but it also allows the movie opportunities for naturalistic and awkward behavior that’s rarely seen in this kind of costume drama.
What Doesn’t: Love & Friendship runs just ninety-two minutes and the brief running time is important to the movie’s success because the film doesn’t have much substance to it. Even though the movie is ostensibly about marriage and the future happiness of these women, the stakes of Love & Friendship are always very low. Love & Friendship is about manipulation, not romantic passion, and so there are few tangible consequences to the outcome of the story and therefore little dramatic weight to the movie. Fortunately, Love & Friendship zips along and the movie is over before it outstays its welcome. As a period piece, Love & Friendship tends to look very clean. As is the case in many dramas set in this period, the costumes are perfectly fitted and the sets are meticulous. The movie is full of period detail but Love & Friendship suffers from its polished production design. Everything is so neat that the characters look like actors on a movie set instead of people in their homes. The film would have benefitted from a more organic style. Love & Friendship also has a cliché music score by Benjamin Esdraffo. There’s nothing wrong with the music but it sounds like every other score in movies like this and the way it is mixed into the soundtrack is sometimes overbearing.
Bottom Line: Love & Friendship is an enjoyable film that satisfies most of the demands of the Jane Austen audience while finding something interesting in the subject matter. It isn’t a deep story but it is an engaging comedy that manages to make 19th century manners a lot of fun.
Episode: #599 (June 19, 2016)