SIFF Film Review – Love & Friendship
Love & Friendship
While a lot of people love Jane Austen books and the movies based on them, many dismiss her work because there is romance involved. I don’t think romantic love is a trivial subject considering how much time we spend looking for it in our lives and how satisfying (or deeply unsatisfying) it can be. But I’d argue that while Austen’s books do have romance in them, they are actually about economics. Women are driven to marry in her novels, not out of love – although her heroines are rewarded with it – but out of financial necessity. Elizabeth and her sisters in Pride and Prejudice must marry or face the prospect of poverty when their father dies because his property is entailed on a male relative. Anne Elliot is persuaded not to marry Captain Wentworth in Persuasion because he is a commoner and has no fortune. Since her family’s property is also entailed, she’ll need a mate able to support her according to her station. Emma Woodhouse in Emma is so rich she has no need to worry about marriage, but all the women around her economically thrive or flounder based on their marital choices. Whit Stillman’s new film Love & Friendship (which is not actually derived from Austen’s short novel of the same name, but on Lady Susan, another of her early works) is also based on the economics of women, but with a different kind of heroine than Austen is usually known for.
Widowed Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) is staying with Lord and Lady Manwaring when her welcome runs out and she is forced to bide with her brother-in-law and his family. She’s created this situation by amorously attaching herself to Lord Manwaring whilst steering his daughter’s suitor’s affection to her own offspring Frederica (Morfydd Clark). Lady Manwaring will have none of this, and the Vernons must be on their way. Lady Susan has no good reputation, and her sister-in-law Catherine (Emma Greenwell) is loath to have her stay with them, but Catherine’s brother Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel) is excited to meet England’s greatest flirt. He immediately succumbs to her charms, and Lady Susan spends her time trying to maneuver him into marriage, as well as convince Frederica to marry the sweet, but stupid Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett.)
This all sounds very formulaic, but it’s not. Most Austen heroines are flawed but good, but Lady Susan is an entirely different creature. Her primary objective is to achieve successful marriages for herself and her daughter, and she’ll resort to almost anything to attain those goals. And why shouldn’t she look out for herself and her daughter? While she does get some money from her husband’s family, she is completely dependant on them unless she marries again. And if her motherly love seems somewhat painful, in her own mind she is looking out for her daughter’s future well being. But what none of this can communicate to you is how hilariously funny all of this is. It’s not just some witty dialogue dressed up in period outfits; it’s really, really funny. Kate Beckinsale is wonderful as the amoral, but enchanting Lady Susan; I had forgotten just how good an actress she is. With the exception of one character, every actor is spot on, and it was a joy to watch from start to finish. It is mannered in the way that Stillman’s films often are, but the material so suits his style that I cannot imagine a better marriage of substance and form.
The only thing I can find to fault in this movie is the character Alicia Johnson played by Chloë Sevigny. She is Lady Susan’s greatest friend and confidant. I like Sevigny, but she seems too inherently modern to be a credible late-eighteenth century matron. And honestly, she mostly functions as a listener for Lady Susan’s exposition. (Although upon going back to the source material, I realized it is written as an epistolary novel, and the letter format is basically all exposition all the time.) These sections do not entirely work for me, but they should appeal to any The Last Days of Disco fans that are longing to see Beckinsale and Sevigny together again. In the end, it is a very minor quibble with a delightful movie.
Every character in this movie, whether good or bad, is perfectly amiable, and there can be no better use of your time than to enjoy their presence. Tom Bennett is a standout as the rich and dim Sir James Martin, and I also really loved Jemma Redgrave and James Fleet as Catherine and Reginald’s parents. The two characters that would have been the center of almost any other story, Reginald and Frederica, are genial and bland; it is everyone around them who adds color and interest to the narrative. It is well-written and directed, and the best film I have seen so far this year. I’ve never met a Whit Stillman film I didn’t like, but this one I adore.