Love & Friendship

 

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The American writer/director Whit Stillman unexpectedly turns his attention to a novella by Jane Austen.

 

Love & Friendship

Words for the wise: Kate Beckinsale and Xavier Samuel

 

Imperfect but nevertheless a film to be relished, Love & Friendship is an admirably literate work that derives from Jane Austen’s early novella Lady Susan. Way back in 1990 with his debut feature Metropolitan, a screen original which introduced Whit Stillman as both writer and director, one was immediately aware of Stillman’s skilled way with dialogue. However, Metropolitan was a contemporary New York tale, so it seems like a giant leap to find him in the world of the 1790s and in an English setting. What makes the film even more impressive is the fact that the novella told its tale exclusively through correspondence, so to recast it with the emphasis on dialogue of a kind that Austen’s admirers would recognise as authentic was a hard task to which to aspire.

The film that has resulted is in many ways a triumph since this humorous account of a manipulative widow, Lady Susan, planning unscrupulously to better her standing is full of carefully considered and highly quotable lines. Lady Susan’s sister has already married into the Decourcy family and we now see Lady Susan ready to sacrifice her daughter, Frederica, to marriage to a rich man who is a bumbling idiot while equally eager to seek remarriage herself, perhaps to her brother-in-law Reginald Decourcy, a young man also well off.

In a quality cast, Kate Beckinsale as Lady Susan has a whale of a time, while Chloë Savigny as her American friend and co-conspirator Alicia Johnson matches up to her splendidly. Xavier Samuel as Reginald and Morfydd Clark as Frederica play it straight, leaving it to Tom Bennett as the absurd suitor, Sir James Morton, to play for broader laughs. Overall, though, the effect is strongly reminiscent of the artificial world of The Importance of Being Earnest. As in that work, words are of the essence, but Wilde wisely utilised a simpler plot – here we take a while to adapt to knowing who is who in a fairly large cast that includes several characters not mentioned above.

But the main downside to Love & Friendship is that it never stops to breathe: it feels airless. Some Austen adaptations play up the romantic elements for popular appeal and that is certainly avoided here. The social manoeuvring which is one of Austen’s key subjects is well brought out, but the importance given to the text for its own sake overwhelms any emotional feeling for the characters. Consequently, admirers of Austen’s novels may well respond more positively to this superbly written film than will audiences who look to Austen adaptations hoping to enjoy them on a romantic level. If there is much pleasure to be had here - and there is - it may be best appreciated by connoisseurs of good writing.  

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Xavier Samuel, Morfydd Clark, Emma Greenwell, Tom Bennett, Chloë Sevigny, James Fleet, Jemma Redgrave, Justin Edwards, Jenn Murray, Stephen Fry.


Dir Whit Stillman, Pro Katie Holly, Lauranne Bourrachot and Whit Stillman, Screenplay (from the novella Lady Susan by Jane Austen) Whit Stillman, Ph Richard van Oosterhout, Pro Des Anna Rackard, Ed Sophie Cora, Music Benjamin Esdraffo, Costumes Eimer Ní Mhaoldomhnaigh.


A Westerly Films, Blinder Films, Chic Films production/Revolver Amsterdam/ARTE France/The Irish Film Board etc.-Curzon Film World.
93 mins. Ireland/France/The Netherlands/USA/UK. 2016. Rel: 27 May 2016. Cert. U
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