Love & Friendship (2016)
Release Date: June 3rd, 2016 MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Whit Stillman Actors: Kate Beckinsale, Morfydd Clark, Tom Bennett, Jenn Murray, Lochlann O’Mearain, Sophie Radermacher, Chloe Sevigny, Stephen Fry, Xavier Samuel, Emma Greenwell, Justin Edwards, Kelly Campbell, Jemma Redgrave, James Fleet
n Langford in November, troubled young Frederica Vernon (Morfydd Clark) rides away in a carriage, leaving “unintended” suitor Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett) in distress. Meanwhile, in London, Frederica’s widowed mother, Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale), arrives to visit American Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny), who is married to the older but respectable Mr. Johnson (Stephen Fry). Vernon then heads for Churchill to visit her brother-in-law, Charles (Justin Edwards), with good friend Mrs. Cross (Kelly Campbell) in tow – to pack and unpack things.
While there, she acquaints herself with Catherine DeCourcy Vernon (Emma Greenwell) and her brother Reginald (Xavier Samuel), whom she influences significantly with her skills of seductive manipulation. Susan is ambitious, intellectually superior, and too old to make for a proper romantic companion, which upsets Reginald’s parents; but he’s inexperienced, impressionable, and a bit dim. Susan’s ultimate goals are to use her brother’s wealth and name to sway the way her daughter is treated at school and for the young woman’s marriage prospects; on the side, however, she hopes to acquire a match for herself – one with enough riches to put her back into the arena of power she holds so dear (or as a true woman of decision).
“She hasn’t had tea; it could be a lack of nourishment,” suggests Charles about his tempestuous niece. Based on Jane Austen’s novella “Lady Susan,” this comedy of manners possesses a plenitude of poetically verbose dialogue and verbal hilarities as the leading lady aims to groom her daughter to be a catch for a rich mate. And that mark is Martin, hysterically realized by Bennett, with liveliness, an unsinkable cheerfulness, and outrageous idiocy. The entire cast is exceptional, but Bennett steals the show every time he’s onscreen.
To add to the visual and spoken laughs are intertitles, shown from time to time, though they’re rather unnecessary; it’s a bevy of introductions (for both characters and locations), scrawled across the screen at the start with such numerousness that names and relationships become swiftly confusing (and largely pointless, considering that during the course of the film, each face is learned through interactions and conversations). Initially, it resembles the editing tactics of Wes Anderson. But sorting out the various players comes second to the amusement of Susan’s artful social maneuvering and the failed attempts to thwart her successes in controlling everyone around her (even “discrediting interpretations” are unable to trip her up). “Facts are horrid things.”
There’s fitting music, authentic sets, elaborate costumes, and oodles of melodrama as mortality, religion, improprieties, and Susan’s uncanny understanding of mens’ natures offer up subjects to be alternately ridiculed and wrested. And the acting all around is superb, with Beckinsale never missing a beat in the lead. It’s short, fast, and deliciously witty, though it’s also regularly disconcerting that a sweetly disagreeable protagonist never meets the sort of comeuppance one might expect from continual, devious artifices, especially in an 18th-century England foundation. But it’s nevertheless refreshing that in the world of Jane Austen, it’s the women who are intellectually exceeding and unrestrictedly crafty.
– Mike Massie