Adaptations of Jane Austen and her ilk have a not entirely undeserved reputation for being rather staid, serious affairs, taking their tone from the morally upright high society they tend to depict. Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship thus comes as a blessed relief, rapier-sharp wordplay elevating the film beyond its period trappings to make it one of the year’s funniest yet.
Stillman took as his inspiration one of Austen’s lesser known novellas, Lady Susan. Kate Beckinsale takes on the formerly titular role, a widowed noblewoman supporting herself through her network of in-laws and acquaintances, busy downplaying a reputation for flirtatiousness while she sets about finding husbands for herself and her daughter.
The tone is firmly comic, and Stillman’s screenplay wrings everything it can out of rapid fire period dialogue, no doubt rewarding careful attention and a keen ear. At other times, the pleasures are rather more base, none more so than Tom Bennett’s Sir James Martin, a buffoonish potential betrothed who boasts childish enthusiasm and the intellect to match. “He’s very silly,” one character neatly notes, though that doesn’t seem to quite go far enough to describe a character who argues the importance of following the Twelve Commandments or giggles his way through a plate of peas – “tiny green balls” – and wonders about the market for novelty vegetables. His grin alone was enough to reduce me to tears, and Bennett threatens to steal every scene he graces.
That’s impressive going in a cast as capable as this. Beckinsale herself is on fine form, her every word and expression planned and performed to perfection. She makes light work of Stillman’s complex dialogue, and positively breezes through the film. Justin Edwards and James Fleet are game as the endearing heads of their households, hopelessly outmatched by the women around them – Emma Greenwell and Jemma Redgrave, respectively. Chloë Sevigny brings some crackle as Lady Susan’s close friend from Connecticut, though Stephen Fry does disappointingly little in his small appearance as her husband.
There’s more to Love and Friendship than simple laughs though. Diehard Austen-ites will no doubt appreciate the rigorous historical detailing and extravagant costuming, Stillman showcasing his keen eye for visuals throughout. The striking soundtrack adds to much of the film’s appeal, frequent use of harp and pianoforte refrains giving way to rampant strings. Most of the pieces are kept short, serving as punctuation more than background noise, and so never lose their impact.
There’s a careful balance between the gender politics of the time and audiences’ modern attitudes, enough to make sure that Lady Susan’s antics remain suitably scandalous even to a contemporary eye. The script loses its way slightly as it builds towards its conclusion, rushing over some plot threads and offering slightly unsatisfying resolutions to others, but this is but a quibble, and there’s little else to fault here. Wickedly witty and colossally clever, Love & Friendship is an Austen adaptation fit even – and perhaps especially – for her most strident sceptics.
Words by Dominic Preston