Whit Stillman’s fifth feature film – and first adapting material – is an adaptation of a previously unfilmed Jane Austen novella, Lady Susan, which he has renamed Love and Friendship. It’s a jaunty, spiffy, upbeat and pacy movie, the kind where everyone is too busy being witty, flirtatious and tart to sit down.
Stillman’s previous films – the thematic trilogy Metropolitan (1990), Barcelona (1994), The Last Days of Disco (1998) and Damsels in Distress (2011) – are united by their sparkling, erudite, literary and witty dialogue and their concern with a particular class of American folk, being the upper, and often the upper of the Upper East Side. One can easily understand why the strict codes of behaviour of Austen’s world would appeal to Stillman; London was the Manhattan of her day, and the country estates outside it essentially stand-ins for those of Upstate New York, Connecticut or the Hamptons. It’s a perfect fit, and, happily, Stillman works it well.
He could have quite easily chosen to modernise the source material and fit the story more directly into his regular milieu (as films such as Clueless, From Prada To Nada and Bridget Jones’s Diary have successfully done) but has chosen to keep it in period, delightfully. The beautiful (if limited – supposedly he was working off a $3m budget) estates, costumes and interiors allow Stillman to deliver his most cinematically engaged film yet, and, given its provenance, I suspect it may also end up being by far his most economically successful.
He reunites Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny from The Last Days of Disco as Lady Susan and her friend Alicia Johnson, two friends who have been forbidden to see each other by Johnson’s domineering husband (played briefly but perfectly by Stephen Fry, who grows larger, and whose nose grows more gloriously crooked, with every film). Lady Susan is a widow with an iffy reputation and a troublesome daughter, and her nefarious attempts to rectify those problems send her careening from London, through two different estates, and back again, involving many a relative, suitor and footman along the way.
Beckinsale is terrific as a gorgeous devil who knows perfectly well how to handle herself in every situation, and Xavier Samuel, as a young man central to her plans, is (to use that critic’s cliché) a “revelation”: this young Aussie, who has been bouncing around Australian roles and Hollywood fare such as the Twilight saga, fits perfectly into waistcoat, breeches, clawhammer coats, cropped curls and sideburns. He is the very model of a modern Austen gentleman.
Love and Friendship is only laugh-out-loud funny sporadically, and there is far less emotional engagement available than in mature Austen works such as Pride and Prejudice, Emma and Sense and Sensibility. Nevertheless, the film is always sparkling fun, and a completely worthy addition to the Austen canon by someone who obviously cared very much to contribute.