Love & FriendshipReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 05/20/16 06:04:53
Over the years, the works of Jane Austen have served as the basis for any number of movies, especially in the last couple of decades following the international success of the 1995 British television adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice,” ranging from straightforward takes on her classic novels to more off-beat takes that have transported them to modern times, reworked them into full-scale Bollywood musicals and even thrown marauding zombies into the mix. Some of these films have been quite good—I am especially fond of the charming “Emma” update “Clueless” and the 2005 version of “Pride and Prejudice” with Keira Knightley, even though i would just as soon eat glass as sit through another version of that chestnut—but in most cases, the films have lacked the spark that Austen’s prose contains and which continues to resonate with readers to this day. Too often, there seems to be a bit of disconnect between the filmmakers and the material—they know Austen’s words but not the music—and the results tend to feel like elaborate book reports that replicate the events of the novels but which fail to find a cinematic equivalent to her singular voice. One filmmaker whose work has invited favorable comparisons to Jane Austen in the past is Whit Stillman, whose past works have all been witty and erudite comedies of manners in the vein of Austen’s books and whose first film, “Metropolitan,” could be seen as a loose, contemporary riff on “Mansfield Park.” With his latest work, “Love & Friendship,” Stillman has undertaken his first official Austen adaptation and I cannot easily think of a more felicitous combination of artistic voices—not since Ang Lee and Emma Thompson took on “Sense & Sensibility” has Austen gotten such a top-notch screen version of her work. The trailers may make it seem like just another stuffy literary adaptation but I assure you that it is a wickedly funny delight from start to finish that is, despite the age of its source material, as fresh, vibrant and alive as anything else out there right now.Part of that freshness no doubt comes from the relative unfamiliarity that most people going into “Love & Friendship” will have with the original source material. Instead of adapting one of Austen’s better-known works, he has instead chosen to work with “Lady Susan,” a novella that she wrote very early in her career before putting it away—it would only be published posthumously in 1871 and some have suggested that she never got around to properly finishing it. With its extremely caustic central character and Austen’s decision to convey the story through a series of letters written by the characters—a decision that leaves readers a step removed from the action for the most part—it is easy to understand why even those who will sit through countless versions of Lizzie Bennett’s love life have never quite warmed up to it. In bringing it to the screen, Stillman has indeed made some significant changes to the material—he has reworked the ending, changed one character from a Brit to an American to accommodate the casting of Chloe Savigny and replaced the epistolary approach with a more conventional narrative thread (in one sly in-joke, a couple of characters attempt to read a letter out loud but finally find it too difficult to continue—but his sensibilities are so in tune with Austen’s that the end result is both unquestionably a film as personal and unique as the other carefully constructed gems in his oeuvre (which also includes “Barcelona,” “The Last Days of Disco” and “Damsels in Distress”) without ever losing Austen’s voice in the process.
Our heroine—for lack of a better word—is the recently widowed Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale), a woman who, as we quickly discover, is as vain, self-centered, duplicitous and conniving as she is beautiful and she is, of course, very beautiful. She is also very aware of the effect that her beauty and poise has on most people, especially those of the male persuasion, and is determined to use those powers to get everything that she wants, regardless of who gets hurt along the way. As the story opens, Susan’s most recent living situation comes to an abrupt end amidst rumors that she is having an affair with the man of the house. In need of a place to stay and to plan her next move, she drops in on her sister-in-law, Catherine Vernon (Emma Greenwell), and her husband, Charles (Justin Edwards) at their country estate of Churchill. There is some tension upon her arrival because Catherine is one of the the few people who is able to see beyond Susan’s outwardly pleasant exterior and recognize the calculating schemer underneath. However, Susan is able to easily ignore her,especially when she meets her younger brother, Reginald De Courcy (Xavier Samuel), who is attractive, eligible and smitten with her on first sight.
While visiting her like-minded American friend, Alicia Johnson (Sevigny), Susan lays out her plan to take advantage of Reginald’s besotted nature, not to mention the fact that he is not nearly as wise and sophisticated as he believes himself to be, by getting him to marry her and thereby secure her future. All goes swimmingly for a while but a major hiccup to her plan eventually arrives in the form of her daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark), who has run away from boarding school and is staying with the Vernons as well. Having never show Frederica much in the way of motherly affection in the past, Susan fears that she might snake Reginald away, if only because she is closer to his age than Susan is. To stop this from happening, Susan invites the moneyed but spectacularly doltish Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett)—the kind of guy that one looks at in wonderment that he has somehow managed to get through the day without somehow killing himself in at least seven different ways—to join them in the hopes of marrying Frederica off to him while keeping Reginald (not to mention that aforementioned married lover) for herself. Of course, as anyone familiar with the works of Jane Austen can attest, the course of true love never runs smooth and, as shown here, that goes double for true avarice.
“Love & Friendship”is a film that Stillman has been working on for a while, dating back to that extended 13-year gap between “The Last Days of Disco” and “Damsels in Distress,” and when something gestates that long before going in front of the cameras, there is always the risk that the sheer effort to get it up and running will result in a certain exhaustion in the end product, as if the filmmakers had made it so many times in their heads that they had nothing left to bring once it became a reality. Here, it becomes obvious right from the start that Stillman is more than up to the challenge. In bringing Austen’s story to life, he has chosen an approach that doesn’t merely replicate the events of the novella but offers a sly satirical commentary of the conventions of her works—not to mention the conventions of the subsequent film versions—without ever distracting from the narrative at hand. For example, one problem that anyone charged with filming Austen has to face is that of making the often-complicated relationships of the main characters to each other clear to viewers since they cannot go back a few pages if they get confused. His nifty solution is to occasionally stop the action to deploy title cards giving the name and a droll description of a particular character—not only are these bits very funny, they actually do serve the purpose of explaining who is who. Even more impressively, his screenplay manages to translate Austen’s prose into cinematic terms so that the characters actually sound as if they are talking to each other instead of merely reciting quotations. The result is a perfect melding of sensibilities—it has the loose and relaxed feel of Stillman’s other work while still maintaining the contours of the original narrative.
In his previous film, “Damsels in Distress,” Stillman did something that I would have believed to be impossible—he managed to get an utterly endearing performance from the normally off-putting Greta Gerwig by giving her a character that made deft use of her usually irritating qualities. He has done that again her by taking Kate Beckinsale, an actress whose oftentimes chilly demeanor and haughty attitude (not the kind of thing one wants to affect when making “Underworld 4”) has made her difficult to warm to in the past, and giving her, in Lady Susan, a character in which those characteristics are a perfect fit. This is easily the loosest and funniest performance that she has ever given—she actually appears to be having fun for once, especially when she gets to drop any of her hilariously caustic putdowns and bon mots—and even though Lady Susan is a singularly awful person, Beckinsale plays the part in a way that ensures that you cannot help but like her anyway. Although Beckinsale is front and center throughout, the rest of the cast is equally adept at handling the material with Tom Bennett coming across as especially hilarious as the dim-witted Sir James, the kind of guy who blithely insists that there were 12 commandments or who regards peas as “novelty vegetables” without even the slightest degree of awareness as to how ridiculous he is coming off.“Love & Friendship” is one of those films where everything works so beautifully that one of the great pleasures comes from watching all of the pieces fall into place. It has been elegantly filmed—it is easily Stillman’s best-looking film to date—but there is a vibrancy to it that prevents it from becoming another museum piece. It is smart and erudite throughout in ways that will come as blessed relief to those stubborn moviegoers who would prefer to not have to shut down their brains as soon as they fork over the ticket price. As for the ending, the element that eluded even Austen herself, I do not want to give anything away but what Stillman has come top with her for his conclusion is smart, ironic, deeply satisfying and, like the film as a whole, pretty much perfect.
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