Love & Friendship (U)
Based on a Jane Austen novella, this deliciously sharp comedy is tale of manipulation and matchmaking centred on the beautiful but scheming Lady Susan Vernon. Full of wit and sophistication, the film is a reminder that Austen was a very funny writer.
Whit Stillman | Ireland/Netherlands/France/USA | 2016 | 92 mins | U
Set in the 1790s, with sumptuous National Trust lookalike locations and featuring an impoverished heroine lacking financial security, Love & Friendship could easily have been yet another Jane Austen romcom but this it is decidedly not. The New York social satirist Whit Stillman, writer/director of The Last Days of Disco and a couple of other contemporary comedies of manners, seems to have found his true calling in turning an unpublished work of the young Austen into a bold and hilariously self-aware period drama. In fact he began his career with Metropolitan, a modern tale set in Manhattan – one hostile critic has called him the WASP answer to Woody Allen – which drew inspiration from Mansfield Park, but in Love and Friendship, Stillman has successfully taken his pen to literary adaptation.
At the age of fourteen, Austen wrote a parody of sentimental fiction entitled Love & Friendship and, a few years later a novella, Lady Susan, written entirely in letters. It is from the latter that Stillman has developed his screenplay, intelligently adapting the monologues of Austen’s original into dramatic dialogue, and allowing us to appreciate for the first time the audacity of her turning the epistolary novel’s usual predatory male seducer into a scheming seductress, brought marvellously to life by Kate Beckinsale. So we can feast upon several reversals of the conventional tale; as the Guardian’s Bradshaw puts it, this is “a racier, naughtier piece than you might expect….in which women are permitted to be older, cleverer and better looking than the men they wish to ensnare”. Stillman has said that he softened the sly, manipulative and ruthless character of Lady Susan somewhat, being reminded of the characters played by Michael Caine and Steve Martin in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels who are lovable. Does he succeed with Lady Susan – we may cheer on her indomitable spirit, but do we end up loving her?
According to Richard Brody of the New Yorker, who takes what he calls Stillman’s Austenland more seriously, he is subverting the social order with style, depicting it “as a mask and mode of deception, and this deceit—and the wilful ends that it achieves—doesn’t undercut the beauty of style but, rather, heightens it. Love & Friendship is for Stillman a story of a woman’s secret self-liberation in a society in which the burden of restrictions on women’s behaviour is onerous”.
The casting and performances are perfect and with each character’s arrival on the screen (introduced to us by the use of arch titles like those in silent films), there’s a sort of sigh of satisfaction and a settling back in the seat knowing that we are in the very best of comedic hands, including Beckinsale (who has already played Austen as Emma in the BBC’s adaptation), James Fleet ( Four Weddings and a Funeral), Justin Edwards (In the Thick of It), and Tom Bennett (PhoneShop), described in the Observer as “ a cross between Ricky Gervais and Colin Firth, Mr. Bennett –an Austenite name if there ever was one – is a pea-brained Punchinello who nevertheless manages to steal the entire show”. Plus a few people you have never heard of who are also excellent.
Although this is a relatively low budget film, which was shot in only 27 days, everything about it is opulent and elegant, down to the close up of one character’s buttons. An unexpected pleasure is the use of exquisite Georgian yet mostly unfamiliar grand houses in Ireland, from Newbridge in County Dublin to the Palladian Russborough House in County Wicklow, with Dublin itself serving in the town scenes.
The soundtrack is by Mark Suozzo who wrote the scores for Stillman’s other films, but there is no sign of Studio 54 here. Apart from some original music, most of what we hear is lush Baroque which, although from a slightly earlier period, was felt to be more in keeping with the spirit of the film. Mark Suozzo explains what he was trying to achieve: “From the first strains of Benjamin Esdraffo’s Harp Theme, the music of Love & Friendship brings the Georgian era to life through a variety of musical styles—dramatic French overtures, marches (both quick and stately), a brisk country dance, wistful sensuous arias, aggressive movements from a Vivaldi cello concerto and Beethoven’s cello sonatas, sonorous and idyllic wind symphonies and the spiritual quality of the religious music of Charpentier and Frémart. The music frames the action—it accompanies our journey to places as dramatic (and sometimes pompous) as the country estates, but also welcomes us to the domestic tranquillity within.”
Since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2016, Love & Friendship has had many accolades – most critics have loved it, giving four and five star reviews – although at the time of writing it is too early yet for awards to have been made. The consensus seems to be that it is a clever and wildly funny addition to the Austen canon; as Stillman himself has said, if you like Oscar Wilde, Evelyn Waugh and Monty Python, you’ll enjoy this!
Weighted vote 82.6%