One of first feature adaptations of Jane Austen’s works was 1940’s Pride and Prejudice, paving the way for what feels like a flood of similar costume dramas in the decades since. Austen in particular has been fertile ground, with TV and film versions, web series, zombie-filled mashups, Mormon inspired love stories, and loose inspirations like Clueless, The Lizzie Bennett Diaries, and Bridget Jones’s Diary all laying links to the writer’s bibliography. Yet, to quote Whit Stillman’s LOVE AND FRIENDSHIP, “facts are such horrid things.”
LOVE AND FRIENDSHIP is a reworking of Austen’s originally unpublished (and very short) epistolary novel Lady Susan, borrowing the title from another story entirely. The series of letters is converted into episodic moments based around the widowed and relatively young Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale), who is not only seeking a spouse for her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark), but perhaps secure one for herself as well. Lady Susan has a reputation as an outrageous flirt, and with the help of old friend Alicia (Chloë Sevigny), she attempts to win the hand of several eligible suitors.
With its tongue planted firmly in cheek, this comedy of manners is a lighthearted affair. Much of the dialogue is a series of witticisms of mind’s being spoken through the thin veil of decorum. Beckinsale’s star status is essential for the role of Lady Susan, saddled as she is with a plethora of dialogue. Beckinsale herself seems physically out of place, a modern creation in an 18th century estate, but that is certainly keeping with the wider themes of the story. It makes her self-dissecting wit disarmingly charming. Yet it’s the over-the-top buffoonery of Sir James Martin that is the most endearing portrayal, with actor Tom Bennett happily stealing scenes away from the leads. It’s almost a bit too consciously clever at times, with Stillman adding a modern twist to the courts of another era.
As with all costume dramas, it’s the set design and the clothing that holds centre stage. Costume designer Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh’s (Becoming Jane, Brideshead Revisited) costume design is superb for the late Georgian Era of Austen’s world. Lady Susan’s brilliant splashes of colour are a stark contrast with the ofttimes dour outfits of the rest of the group, visually separating her from the herd.
The last act of LOVE AND FRIENDSHIP jumps around between the characters before coming to an abrupt conclusion, reminding us sharply of the brevity of the source material. It’s a lightweight affair on one level, rolling from one scene to the next without a care in the world, but it’s also very aware of the importance of a strong female lead who knows exact what she wants and how to achieve that. The ultimate punchline is a giant wink at the audience, and something the young Austen would undeniably have appreciated.
2016 | Ireland, France, Netherlands | DIR: Whit Stillman | WRITERS: Whit Stillman | CAST: Kate Beckinsale, Xavier Samuel, Morfydd Clark | DISTRIBUTOR: Transmission Films (AUS) | RUNNING TIME: 93 minutes | RATING: ★★★