Love & FriendshipReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 05/16/16 06:24:31
(Worth A Look)
Period comedies are relatively rare productions, which means that since first gaining attention in things like Kenneth Branagh's "Much Ado About Nothing", "Cold Comfort Farm", and a television adaptation of "Emma", Kate Beckinsale has spent much of the rest of her career doing things that she was less suited for, even if they were occasionally lucrative. It's easy to forget just how good she is at stuff like this, and reuniting her with "The Last Days of Disco" filmmaker Whit Stillman is close to an ideal way for her to get back to this sort of material.She plays Lady Susan Vernon, a widow at around the turn of the 19th Century with no property, little income, and a bad reputation that has chased her from the home of Lord Manwaring (Lochlann O'Mearáin). Staying in London with her best friend Alicia Johnson (Chloë Sevigny) is not an option, as her husband (Stephen Fry) has threatened to move to Connecticut to oversee their holdings there should she and Susan have any contact. So she settles on the home of her late husband's brother, Charles Vernon (Justin Edwards), though his wife Catherine (Emma Greenwell) is wary. As well she should be; Susan sets her sights on Catherine's brother Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel), while also trying to set up her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) with the very wealthy - but deeply stupid - Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett).
It's easy to think of this sort of story as somewhat generic, especially from a distance; their plots do not necessarily reflect larger changes going on in the world, and the rules governing this sort of upper-class society are rigid enough that there's not much visible room for subversion. That can also be wonderfully focusing - it forces the creators to align all the moving parts and pepper each available moment with clever lines. This, happily, is something that Stillman has always excelled at, both giving his characters clever things to say as a writer and making sure that they are delivered without calling attention to how witty they are but giving the audience a chance to react. He does have a few moments when the story trips him up a bit, especially toward the end, when fairly important things happen off-screen. It may be related to the source material - Jane Austen's original novella "Lady Susan" was not only in the form of letters which could set a scene in the first paragraphs, but was apparently not considered strong enough to be published in her lifetime - but he's frequently had movies key on abrupt shifts.
Those later moments do shift the perspective away from Beckinsale's Lady Susan, which is the best thing a very good film has going for it. Susan is vain and selfish, but also in a time and place where a woman in her situation must look out for herself without much in the way of assistance, and knowing that makes the audience inclined to laugh with her as she dryly talks about how it would be rude to pay her companion, as there is an element of friendship there, sets her sights on a younger man, or plots to marry her daughter to a rich dullard. Beckinsale does all this with just the right combination of calculation and the innocence of a woman just living by the rules of her time, and it's not hard to see how men are unfailingly charmed by her. As the film goes on, though, it becomes clearer that she's something of a monster - Beckinsale doesn't smile quite so widely and allows more notes of disdain to enter her voice. Susan hasn't changed, but somehow, in between the funny lines, Beckinsale and Stillman have shifted the audience's opinion of her, even as the laughs continue.
Chloë Sevigny also rejoins her The Last Days of Disco director and co-star, playing the same sort of role she did there - the less confident friend that Beckinsale's character walks all over - although with a bunch more sarcastic disdain for her husband (although Stephen Fry is kind of underused in that role). There's a pretty fantastic cast around them, too, with Emma Greenwell and Morfydd Clark especially great as the sister-in-law and daughter who are most frequently at odds with Susan; they create very sympathetic counterpoints without seeming weak. Something similar can be said for Xavier Samuel, whose Reginald DeCourcy is in the position of defending Susan but still has to be a guy we look upon favorably; he gets laughs from being a goof but still appeals. Tom Bennett, on the other hand, plays Sir James as broadly, hilariously stupid, and both Samuel and Justin Edwards do great work playing the straight man against him.Together, they make a very funny movie, and hopefully its not another twenty years before this group can get their comedy of manners thing going again. There aren't enough good ones getting made, period, and it happens to be what these folks are good at.
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