Director: Whit Stillman
Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Chloe Sevigny, Xavier Samuel, Tom Bennett
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“My daughter has taught herself to be cunning and manipulative. I couldn’t be more pleased.” That’s Lady Susan (Beckinsale) in Love & Friendship, Whit Stillman’s costume drama comedy. It’s perfectly titled, because it features hardly any of either.
The name (made up by Stillman) immediately recalls the trimmings and trappings of Jane Austen’s most famous works, but this is Austen like you’ve never seen her before. Amazingly, that’s to her credit: this film is based on an epistolary novel (“Lady Susan”) that the author wrote early in her career, but wasn’t published until many years down the line.
You can feel the youthful vitality leap off the page, thanks to Stillman’s translation to the screen, subverting all the things that have since become convention. Where the ironic commentary on her characters would normally pepper her narration, here they actually get to speak it themselves – more specifically, Lady Susan does. The result is not just a tale of a widow riding out the rumours of her romantic liaisons, while trying to find a suitor for her young daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark), but also a non-stop string of witty insults and catty shots – and Kate Beckinsale is beautifully brilliant at firing them out.
After a long period of Underworld-esque action roles, the actress visibly revels in the chance to go back to the matchmaking days of Andrew Davies’ 1990s adaptation of Emma – and wreak havoc. “How dare you address me, sir!” she rebukes a man for approaching her in public without warning. “Do you know him?” she’s asked. “I know him well,” she retorts. “I would never address a stranger like that.”
She’s supported by a superb cast, in particular Chloë Sevigny (reuniting with Beckinsale after Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco) as her confidante, Alicia Johnson (married to Mr. Johnson, played by Stephen Fry). At the helm, Stillman injects everything with irresistible verve, peppering the Austen exchanges with his own sassy dialogue. He pitches things perfectly between knowing and straight-faced, with his characters introduced by playful title cards: Lord Manwaring is described as “divinely attractive man” within the film’s first few minutes.
It’s that balance between reverence and relentless humour that gives the ensemble a chance to shine, not least of all Tom Bennett, who delivers one of the funniest supporting roles of the year as Sir James Martin. (“Slightly simple but rich,” observes Alicia. “Ideal,” decides Susan.) He rambles away about the name of Manwaring’s estate – Churchill – with delightful enthusiasm, before singing the praises of peas. (“How jolly! Tiny green balls!”) You can easily tell he’s having the time of his life – mostly because you are too.
Love & Friendship is available on BBC iPlayer until 26th August 2018.
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