Whit Stillman Offers Up a Breezy Austen Adaptation
DIRECTOR: WHIT STILLMAN/2016
It’s a dream team: director Whit Stillman, master of the modern, arch social comedy, adapting a work by Jane Austen, master of the 18th century arch social comedy. And this match made in heaven does not disappoint. Love & Friendship, based on Austen’s novella Lady Susan, is (like the character of Lady Susan herself) pretty, witty and barbed.
All Austen film adaptations wind up being compared to Ang Lee’s lush, spectacularly cast Sense and Sensibility. It’s perhaps helpful to note that Love & Friendship isn’t aspiring to be quite as emotionally weighty as Lee’s film. Sense and Sensibility has comedy, certainly – but it’s also a family drama and a romance, and I am one of its many fans who cannot watch the final scene without weeping. Love & Friendship is a straightforward comedy. You are not likely to cry watching it, but you’ll almost certainly laugh out loud more than once. The movie sets its tone immediately, introducing a large cast of characters by having each of them strike a dramatic pose as overlaid text tells us who they are (one of the characters is described, for instance, as “divinely handsome”). Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) married into a respectable family, but as a widow scandal seems to follow wherever she goes.
Women – particularly married women – are quicker to be suspicious of Lady Susan than men. Even men who have heard of her reputation as a “flirt” seem to be won over by her once she’s had a little time to work on them.
Having spent her dead husband’s fortune and with a teenage daughter to provide for, Lady Susan finds herself relying on the kindness of relatives and friends. “We don’t live,” she tells her daughter, Frederica. “We visit.” Lady Susan has her sites set on potential matches for both her daughter and herself, the suitability of which is determined largely by income. Lady Susan herself targets and wins over a young relative by marriage, Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel). DeCourcy is perhaps too kindhearted to see straight when it comes to Lady Susan’s motives. But poor Frederica (Morfydd Clark) is in an even worse fix than DeCourcy. Her mother is trying to press her into a marriage to James Martin (Tom Bennett), who DeCourcy accurately describes as “a complete blockhead”. Jane Austen knew how to create stupid men in her fiction. Mr. Collins from Pride and Prejudice is a masterfully crafted vain, oblivious fool (well realized by Matt Smith in this year’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). But never has there been a stupider character in the Austenverse than James Martin. Bennett delivers every line with a huge smile on his face, a combination of embarrassment, pride, and a childlike eagerness to please. Martin has lived his entire life in privilege and seems to have learned absolutely nothing. His blissful ignorance leads to the funniest moments in Love & Friendship and Bennett’s performance is irresistible.
Beyond the Vernon ladies and their prospective husband, Love & Friendship teems with characters. Stillman fans will be happy to see Chloë Sevigny playing Lady Susan’s best friend and co-conspirator, Alicia Johnson. Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny were the leads in Stillman’s wonderful 1998 comedyThe Last Days of Disco. After the passage of nearly 20 years, the reunion of these three talents produces just the right blend of sweet and sour. Sevigny is as droll and deadpan as ever. Beckinsale remains strikingly beautiful, and her Lady Susan is confidently, righteously self-absorbed. It’s easy to believe that, even in midlife, she is still wrapping men around her finger.
Love & Friendship is a pleasure to look at, with gorgeous period costumes and interiors. Stillman’s script is breezy in tone, so that even a cuckolding (which would be a disaster in a typical Austen adaptation) is played to light comic effect. Austen’s world and Stillman’s style seem made for each other. If Stillman ever chooses to adapt another of Austen’s works, I’ll be in the audience.