The British bourgeoisie get dressed both up and down in Whit Stillman’s fresh farce Love & Friendship, a fleet-footed chronicle of 18th century cunning and courtship. Based on Jane Austen’s novella Lady Susan, Stillman’s movie concerns itself with the daily doings of several wealthy couples and their children, whose sweet situations turn sour when acid-tongued widow Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) enters their orbit. Stillman applies a touch that’s light with bite, as if he loves these gossipy extravagances and yet feels compelled to take satirical swipes and snipes at them as well.
His approach makes for a dizzyingly funny romp through various households and only those households, an insular look at an insular world. We’re immersed in the scandals and silliness and Stillman positions his perspective directly in the middle of this intersection so that his critique is piercingly witty while maintaining a fair fondness for the generally good people onscreen. We can laugh at the pettiness, the jealousy, the stuffy formality of it all, but still care about these people who are simply looking for some upper crust happiness.
Of course, what makes Susan happy isn’t necessarily the same thing that makes her warm-hearted sister-in-law Catherine DeCourcey Vernon (Emma Greenwell) or her nerve-racked daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) happy. Susan thrives on brutal honesty built on a steely foundation of persistence. She’s beautiful and charming, but unlike most other beautiful and charming women in her social circle, also harsh and direct, except in the most elegant way possible, of course. Lady Susan doesn’t mince words; she fillets them.
It’s a grand role for Beckinsale, who hasn’t exactly a history of delivering sterling performances. In broad terms, Beckinsale has amassed a unique filmography, just not one that illuminates a lot of acting skill. For much of her career, she’s been a female action star who can carry a franchise and be more than the mere fetching love interest (though she did that too in Michael Bay’s action epic Pearl Harbor), putting her in exceptionally rare company. But while Underworld movies and forgettable thrillers like Whiteout pay the bills, they don’t exactly earn you acclaim.
So seeing Beckinsale own the screen here and play a commanding villain with grace and humour is an immensely pleasant surprise. She's a standout in what is surely one of the finest ensembles of the year. She lets her crisply clipped lines roll off her tongue so comfortably that she sharpens the content of her words with conviction.
All of the Austen-lifted-and-inspired dialogue is sumptuous and Stillman is so enamoured with it that he puts some of it directly on the screen, doubling up on the opportunities to appreciate the words, letting us read and listen to it simultaneously. It’s playful visuals like this that set Love & Friendship apart from other Austen adaptations and even costume dramas in general. There’s an interesting, buoyant dichotomy born between such toying flourishes and Stillman’s otherwise no-fuss style that immerses us in the world rather matter-of-factly.
Love & Friendship is traditional from one angle, eccentric from the next. And this uniquely kaleidoscopic effect spreads across all facets of the movie. The score, littered with actual classical music tracks and composer Mark Suozzo’s original compositions, continually hits these up beats just as the characters fall down, making the satirical experience an ironic jive, as though the familiar cinematic period pic tropes aren't aware that they're being subverted.
This approach allows Stillman to inhabit the period drama trappings while also stepping outside them and observing their qualities for satirical effect. It’s a smart attempt to have it both ways and it makes Love & Friendship a curiously crafty concoction. Observing the bourgeoisie lifestyle and the prestige costume drama genre simultaneously allows for some meaty meta subtext without betraying the picture’s commitment to the characters.
It’s important that we continue to care about the tales of romance and happiness onscreen because Stillman clearly intends for the narrative to engage us. So much of the movie’s strength relies on the kind people whose lives are on such amusingly enriched display. Some of the characters are there for charm, including Catherine’s brother Reginald (Xavier Samuel), who falls under Lady Susan’s bewitching spell, but others have more comical purposes.
Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett) bursts onto the scene with dorky gusto, further crowding an already bustling home and filling the air with ridiculous, often endearing prattle. He’s trying to chase down an uninterested Frederica and he becomes a key player in the plot despite his apparent uselessness to nearly everyone else.
Some like him, so refreshingly unorthodox is his idiocy, while others loathe him, so immensely irritating is his idiocy. He lends the movie a silly spark thanks to Bennett’s delightful timing and the quirkily misplaced confidence he imbues the character with. Sir James is a goofball of a character in a world where keeping a straight face and treating most situations with a certain level of seriousness seems to be absolutely imperative.
Stillman uses the character to his grand advantage, energetically offsetting the otherwise stringent adherence to social etiquette. Most importantly and insightfully, the presence of Sir James provides criticism of the gender imbalance. Stillman revels in showing how easily and cluelessly Sir James flits through life simply because his standing trumps his stupidity, while Lady Susan has to be the smartest person in the room simply to survive.
These hypocritical advantages and disadvantages are efficiently observed by Stillman, who also makes the more traditionally dramatic moments work beautifully because most of these characters earn their happiness and our adoration. Lady Susan remains a shady, nasty piece of work, but she sure makes a good case for her actions in a society that’s tilted against her. Love & Friendship hurls judgment at that society while also enjoying its fluffy frivolities. Instead of diluting either position, Stillman marries them to each other so that they’re intertwined, satire and sentiment fashionably fused.