As a film critic, you sometimes find yourself working into a specific niche. Personally, I’ve become known for my commitment to horror – indie or mainstream – which makes some people believe that it’s ALL I cover. At a festival, a fellow critic was surprised to see me attending a certain screening “not aligned” with my “focus,” but what people forget is that while cinema enthusiasts may find refuge in a single genre, a true movie lover embraces ALL genres and evaluates without bias.
On that note, I’ll happily admit that Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship left me charmed, delighted, and missing better days of linguistic appreciation. Yes – this horror guy can get down with Victorian-era Jane Austen romantics (Stillman’s film is adapted from Austen’s novella, Lady Susan). You got a problem with that?
Kate Beckinsale stars as Lady Susan Vernon, a cunning widow with marriage on her mind – for both herself, and her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark). While staying at her in-laws’ Churchill Estate, the young Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel) becomes the target of Lady Susan’s affection, while Frederica fights off an obsessive gentleman named Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett). Slowly, as Lady Susan weaves her tangled web throughout Churchill, family members begin to intervene before the drama becomes too unbearable. It’s a tale of love, status and public perception, none of which escape the best-laid plans of Lady Susan Vernon – or so she thinks.
Stillman’s Love & Friendship is able to unleash such a ravishing intrigue because drama comes second-nature despite such primitive societal methods. Zero technological advances means characters all rely on word of mouth, and can only conjure dramatics through eloquent dialogue exchanges. Conversations blur in a flurry of twisted words and sultry white lies, yet vibrancy is never lost. There’s such a charm to Lady Susan’s salaciously sharp wits, despite a repetitive cycle of secret meetings and ill-fated warnings falling on passionate, biased ears. Certain films – off the top of my head, Miss Julie – fumble this sometimes dry dynamic, but Stillman weaves a poetic, comical tale around one woman’s ability to expose how silly, and utterly dimwitted us men really are.
That’s what I love most about Love & Friendship, especially where Beckinsale’s performance is concerned. As confirmed during backroom meetings with her best friend Alicia (Chloë Sevigny), Lady Susan is a manipulative mastermind. A technical strategist who can spin any situation into an advantage. Surely there are challenges along the way, but Beckinsale’s ability to strike such a commanding confidence never suggests worry in the least. Her gaze is entrancing, language stinging, and overall demeanor lovably positive, even when admitting more selfish intentions. At her most pompous, we still pine over Lady Susan in the very ways her suitors do, because of that distinctly Medusa-like superiority. Beckinsale proves she’s more than a Lycan-hunting Underworld vixen, as period theatrics look damn good on Stillman’s man-eating subject.
Digging deeper into Stillman’s cast, it’s Tom Bennett who stands out as Frederica’s “silly” pursuer, Sir James Martin. From the very moment he stumbles into focus, Bennett exudes a daffy exuberance shaped by wealth and misinformation. His beliefs are typically incorrect, yet proclaimed with such a lovable confidence that you can’t help but burst out in sympathetic fits of laughter.
Elsewhere in the cast, Xavier Samuel is dashing beyond recognition, Justin Edwards lumbers around with a warm heart, and Emma Greenwell proves to be a cunning combatant of Lady Susan’s will, all befitting of Austen’s lovestruck world – but Bennett is something else. A jester of the highest society, if you will. This is where Stillman makes memories, and elevates his film above typical historical dreck.
While I’ll admit that not every scene delivers on par with Whit Stillman’s highest highs, Love & Friendship is still a charming adaptation of Jane Austen’s punchy romanticism. Modern stories of such ilk would be an embarrassment, containing talk of “side bitches” and “sliding into DMS” – drama without any sophistication. Love & Friendship transports viewers back to a time when dignity meant something, and pride trumped all. Manipulation shouldn’t be this fun, but don’t tell Jane Austen or Whit Stillman that!
The charmingly manipulative Love & Friendship shouldn't be as periodically enchanting as it is, but dammit if Kate Beckinsale doesn't hypnotize us from scene one.