UK Release Date: 27th May 2016
Runtime: 93 minutes
Director: Whit Stillman
Writer: Whit Stillman
Starring: Kate Beckinsale, Chloë Sevigny, Morfydd Clark, Xavier Samuel, Tom Bennett, Justin Edwards, Jemma Redgrave
Synopsis: A flirtatious widow with a sharp tongue and fierce intelligence manipulates high society in order to get exactly what she wants for herself and her daughter.
When you think about Jane Austen, you think of polite society, corsets and probably Colin Firth. Austen’s works, however, are filled to the brim with sharp, acerbic wit and barbed dialogue. One of the most underrated aspects of Austen is her humour, which often gets buried under pageantry. That, thankfully, is not the case in Love & Friendship – a biting and intensely witty take on Austen’s epistolary novel Lady Susan, which is rather different to the standard world of niceties and even nicer hats. It’s Austen with a sense of snarling satire – like Downton Abbey if it was written by Frankie Boyle.
Widow Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) visits the country home of brother-in-law Charles Vernon (Justin Edwards) as part of her hunt for a suitable match for both herself and her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark). With the help of her friend Alicia Johnson (Chloë Sevigny), Susan schemes and plots to get the best possible deal from the likes of the dashing Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel) and the utterly daft, but incredibly rich, James Martin (Tom Bennett).
Writer-director Whit Stillman has created a very different kind of Austen movie with Love & Friendship. Many of the Austen conventions are present and correct, but they are wrapped up inside a genuinely interesting and alternative take on that world, in which we see a female character grabbing her future by the balls rather than meekly falling for the first attractive man she comes upon. Stillman’s script delivers memorable quips aplenty, giving the talented cast of predominantly British performers lines that they can really wrap their tongues around and deliver with comedic relish.
At the heart of it all is Kate Beckinsale, in a role that showcases the kind of talent her other work has almost entirely obscured. Beckinsale is truly remarkable as Lady Susan, portraying a truly loathsome human being who thinks nothing of taking the people closest to her and playing them like fiddles. Despite her character’s myriad character flaws, Beckinsale manages to get the audience on her side. When you watch Love & Friendship, you want Lady Susan’s scheme to succeed, regardless of how many marriages she tears apart and how many people to whom she is entirely unfaithful. Beckinsale is fiercely funny and is clearly having just as much fun as the audience. It’s one of the best performances in any film this year.
Beckinsale is helped by a great supporting cast, with Chloë Sevigny great in her occasional scenes as Lady Susan’s best friend and only true confidante. Justin Edwards, previously best known as the oafish Ben Swain in The Thick of It, is endlessly enjoyable and Morfydd Clark makes the most of relatively meagre screen time. All of these performances are insignificant, though, when compared to sitcom star Tom Bennett, who is nothing short of amazing as an utter doofus. His performance veers so close to clowning that it almost derails the film with its ridiculousness, but he judges every gurn and gag with such perfection that, instead of destroying his scenes, he completely steals them.
That’s not to say, though, that everything about Love & Friendship works. It’s a featherweight movie that has very little to say once it has finished with its jokes and it also suffers from an ending that arrives somewhat out of nowhere and doesn’t exactly provide a satisfying conclusion. When it is on form, though, this is a film that delivers more laughs than many of the year’s broad comedies. It’s films like this that could make post-Downton period drama cool again.
Pop or Poop?
Whit Stillman has produced something very special with Love & Friendship – a film that distills the best aspects of Austen and focuses them through the picture perfect prism of Kate Beckinsale’s fiery central performance. Bennett’s clowning and the gravitas of the supporting players helps, but this is Beckinsale’s movie and she takes it firmly within her grasp.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.