Love & Friendship is another Jane Austen adaptation. For those who spent their school holidays camped in front of midday ABC television – dominated by Austen and Austen-adjacent period pieces – that might be cause for trepidation. If the enthusiastic, dense crowd that attended my preview screening was anything to go by, however, there are plenty excited about the possibility of another branch of the Austen Cinematic Universe.
Thankfully, Whit Stillman not only knows the notes, he can play the music. Love & Friendship – a spin on Austen’s novella Lady Susan – is a deftly-executed delight, a lilting melody of acerbic one liners and charming repartee. It centres on said Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale, wonderful), who navigates the tangled snarl of polite – and not-so-polite – English society. It’s the kind of world where who you are ranks somewhere below who you’re related to and who you’re married to; Susan is afforded a rare freedom by her lack of a husband (she’s a widow), though that’s somewhat hampered by her near-non-existent finances.
First and foremost, this is a comedy. It’s a rare pleasure nowadays to enjoy an entry in the genre defined by razor-sharp writing and impeccable timing rather than loosely cobbled together improvisation, though I should note that this is more likely to inspire chuckles over chardonnay than hearty guffaws. Stillman uses his cast of character actors judiciously; for instance, Stephen Fry’s tendency for chewing the scenery is held in check by his limited role while Chloë Sevigny – as his American wife and Susan’s confidante – is allowed free reign to flex her rarely-demonstrated knack for drollery. Special mention must be made of Tom Bennett, whose oblivious fop (or “rattle”) could have come right out of a Taika Waititi film – and is precisely the correct amount of screentime.
The complexity of the comedy is aided by the director’s knack for Austen’s precise patterns of dialogue and, particularly, the slipperiness of Susan’s character. The screenplay refuses to pigeonhole her as either a heroine railing against patriarchal strictures, nor a villain coldly manipulating her way through high society to her own end. I could sympathise with the way she played with the hearts of her many lovers, but I confess difficulty forgiving her treatment of her own daughter (a waifish Morfydd Clark, who looks pretty much like you’d expect someone named Morfydd to look).
Anyway, the point isn’t to sit in judgment upon Susan’s actions, but to be entertained by them. And it that respect, the film succeeds unequivocally. Oh, granted, it loses a little steam somewhere around the middle when it slows down a little and becomes a tad predictable, but for the majority of the runtime it’s hard to keep a wry smile from your face. It helps that Stillman dances about the silliness of such costume dramas, balancing on the precarious ridge between self-parody and self-seriousness. Thankfully – unlike those ABC predecessors that bored me to tears as a child – his balance never wavers.