Beckinsale Beguile's in Stillman's Nearly Perfect Period Piece, 'Love & Friendship'

Whit Stillman's Love & Friendship extracts enchantment from the pages of a little known posthumously published Jane Austen novel.

Love & Friendship

Director: Whit Stillman
Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Chloë Sevigny, Xavier Samuel
US Release Date: 2016-05-13

Whit Stilton’s Love & Friendship roils through Georgian England’s aristocratic prattle with unctuous yearning. There's clear affection for the language and the period. Characters orate in near Shakespearian tropes in rooms appointed with gilded detail, and in countrysides and courtyards awash in dulcet grays.

At the center of this 18th century postcard from the edge lies the flirtations of the beguiling window, Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale). Action, such as it is, swirls around the rumors and gossip associated with her quest to secure a husband for daughter, and a better position for herself.

The film, derived from the Jane Austen novel Lady Susan, (while borrowing its title from another Austen work) transforms the epistolary into a tight portrait of a woman of no fear in a country on the edge of upheaval. The upheaval, however, is subtle, communicated through her best friend, American, Alicia Johnson (Chloë Sevigny).

There's something decidedly American about Lady’s Susan’s brashness that rumbles through polite society as a kind of reverberation of the American revolution. Unlike Downtown Abbey, which could explore the transformations of society over a number of years, Love & Friendship must be content to pack its main character with all the threat and ambivalence associated with social change.

While the women gossip and put on aires, it's clear that they run the show. While fastidiously dissecting Lady Susan’s behavior, there's a sense not just of worry for the hearts of their husbands in the presence of a master, but also a sense of awe in the character’s performance -- a silent sigh, a recognition and a yearning, “Ah, if I could just be like Susan.”

Unlike the other women, who hint at under-the-breath admiration, Lady Lucy Manwaring sees in Susan no reflection of herself in a better mirror, but simply evil incarnate as Susan first steals her husband, Lord Manwaring, then tucks him away beneath the ignorance of her own husband. And what a husband she ultimately chooses.

Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett) steals every scene, even in the presence of Beckinsale. His idiocy knows no bounds, except in his own recognition of it. The rich aristocrat is first seen in pursuit of Lady Susan’s daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark), but as she wiggles out of her mother’s plans, he becomes the perfect fodder for the window in need of financial and societal propping up.

So Lady Susan marries Martin, but the “distraught” Manwaring moves in with the couple, who Martin finds a fitting companion, as of course, does his wife. Though never seen, viewers might well imagine a deep passion between Vernon and Manwaring, the later who speaks only through knowing winks and glances. Somewhere in London the two clandestine lovers play out the intimate opening scene of Beckinsale’s Laurel Canyon, and rather than Francis McDormand interrupting their coitus, Martin knocks on the door to ask what day of the week it is.

Beckinsale is pitch perfect as the baller of artifice, bent on getting what she wants with no pretense as to hiding her ambition or her manipulation. She wantonly turns evidence against her into cases against her accusers, usually berating them into despondent admission of their guilt. This is perhaps Beckinsale’s finest performance, a deep darkness drawn from Underworld’s Selene tussled through the a wit and independence of mature Hero, from Much Ado About Nothing, one tutored well by her cousin Beatrice.

While other Austen characters, most notably Emma, represent strong English women, Stillman has found a way to imbue Lady Susan with a modern assertive snarkiness that would not be misplaced on the Real Housewives of New Jersey, or as a member of the Kardashian household. The cast is uniformly excellent, weather delivering comedic lines with a dry verbal brush like Sir Reginald DeCourcy (James Fleet), or the uncontrollably screeching Lady Lucy Manwaring. Sevigny proves a deft social arsonist as she fans Lady Susan’s already heated ambitions.

As with the actors, the film feels like a perfectly set table, even the jagged cobblestones, the graveled approaches and the worn carriages included intentionally rather than incidentally.

Stillman has crafted a marvelously modern tale from the narrative found in Austen’s knowing fictional correspondence. The writer/director paints his play on the front of old post cards seemingly with the exactness of a fine-tipped brush dipped in sepia-loosening words upon his unlikely canvas.

Going down the escalator, after the Seattle International Film Festival viewing of the film, I overheard a couple. The wife said, “it was just like something on PBS only much better.”

And perhaps that is the essence of Love & Friendship, a period dramady told with heightened rigor. To Stillman we can only liaise the sentiment that the world receives far too few of his films.

As the credits rolled, I turned to a young film maker sitting next to me. I said, “So, do you think there is a Nick Fury clip after the credits?” He laughed, responding, “Wouldn’t that be great, ‘Lady Susan, we have need of a woman with your talents.’” Indeed.

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