Love & Friendship
(SPOILERS) I’m no Austenite, unless you count Steve (not the stone cold one, rather the bionic chap), so I probably should have little adverse to say about this creative adaptation of Lady Susan by Whit Stillman (a director I have much admiration for, albeit somehow his last feature, Damsels in Distress, has passed me by, and it’s not exactly as if he has a profuse filmography). But, as garlanded with praise as Love & Friendship has been, and deserving as much of it is, I’m not quite sure the prodigious innuendo packed into the ending’s pants isn’t a little out of place.
I’ll be upfront and admit I was decidedly not bowled over by Kate Beckinsale’s raved-about lead performance. I can’t think of a performance from Kate that did merit raves, though; she’s probably the most nondescript franchise lead in the business (that’s Underworld, just so we’re clear). I seem to recall she was decent enough in Stillman’s Last Days of Disco, but there, as here, Chloe Sevigny made a much more lasting impression.
Beckinsale’s turn is sufficient, but Lady Susan is such a gift of a part, a lofty manipulator of others who believes she’s always right, even, or especially, when she’s flat out wrong (be it misquoting The Bible – which she does frequently – or blaming her own indiscretions on others for reading her conniving mail, mail that is a means to conducting an illicit affair), that someone else would surely have made it truly memorable. This needed an actress who would make Susan’s deceits and indiscretions something to be relished, for all their moral turpitude, but instead we get a delivery that’s as stiff the character’s unlikely eighteen century Botox. Nevertheless, Beckinsale is unable to defeat the best of Stillman’s dialogue:
Man on Street: Lady Susan, Lady Susan!
Lady Susan: How dare you! How dare you address me, sir!
Man on Street: But Lady Susan!
Lady Susan: Be gone, sir, or I will have you whipped!
Alicia: Outrageous! You’ve never met him?
Lady Susan: No, I know him well. I would never speak to a stranger like that.
Lady Susan has been contriving to secure husbands for herself and her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark), on the grounds of their precarious financial state (“We don’t live. We visit”). To this end, she hatches all manner of subterfuge and dalliances, pursuing the much younger Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel), who is in thrall to her, to the particular disapproval of his father Sir Reginald (James Fleet, outstanding). Sir Reginald has good reason, since – although offscreen – Lady Susan is carrying on with Lord Manwaring (‘a divinely attractive man” as the introductory character sketches wittily inform us), much to the fury of his shrewish wife Lady Lucy (Jenn Murray).
Frederica: You must have notice. He’s very silly.
Frederica, meanwhile, has no desire for her intended, Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), “A bit of a rattle”, prone to talking bollocks whenever he opens his mouth, be it on the subject of peas (“How jolly. Tiny green balls. What are they called?”), the art of composition (“Cooper the poet?”: “He also writes verse”) and the Twelve Commandments (told that there are only ten, he misunderstands: “Really? Only ten must be obeyed? Really. Which to take off?”). Bennett runs away with the film whenever he’s on screen, taking evident delight in essaying a silly (very silly) arse. He’s also married into cuckoldry come the conclusion (mother and daughter swap intended in an effectively light-brush manner), informed by Lady Susan the very morning after they wed that she is expecting; it transpires that Lord Manwaring, whom Sir James thinks the world of, has been staying with them for the past week, and will continue to lodge with them.
The jovial buffoon seems to be implicitly awarded his just desserts by a line in which he claims it is fine for a man to have an affair while it would simply be inconceivable for a woman to do likewise; this comes across as Stillman’s hasty justification for the cruel fate he bestows upon Sir James. More than that, though, while I’d never accuse Stillman, the most reserved and mannered of filmmakers outside of Wes Anderson, of ‘sexing up” material, foisting overt innuendo onto Austen’s novel (which the director considered “so flawed”) makes for a scenario that could only really be more explicit if Beckinsale were played by Babs Windsor, Sir James by Charles Hawtrey and Lord Manwaring by Sir Sid of James.
That aside, Love & Friendship is as thoroughly witty, precise and amusingly edited as we’ve come to expect of Stillman, and the constraints of the period piece clearly suit a director who is most comfortable when his surroundings are buttoned down and eccentrically formal.
Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.