Love & Friendship Review

by Steve Pulaski

Writer/director Whit Stillman, commonly known and recognized as one of the few directors today consistently making very mannered comedies in way of the British tradition, finally adapting a Jane Austen novel is like a marriage that could do no wrong in the eyes of many. Austen’s subversive writing style that loaned a lot to the female perspective of the 18th century and Stillman’s love for costumes and high-brow comedy sprinkled over larger themes is ostensibly a union of elegant proportions. To be clearer, it’s a union for some, rather than everyone, much like an exclusive club – the kind that, if you have the privilege or desire of attending one time around, from the first few moments of arriving, you feel truly out of place.

This is how I’ve long-felt when seeing these kind of “mannered comedies” or period pieces of the 17th and 18th century. With the recent success of Downton Abbey, historical and period dramas that feature a great deal of beautiful costumes and basically predicate themselves on a gaggle of affluent, privileged individuals born with a silver spoon in their mouths, yet still doing things that could often constitute the premise of a buddy movie, have only become more popular. Love & Friendship, which adapts Austen’s Lady Susan, is no exception to this formula. It’s an experience that, while inoffensive and occasionally amusing, is so dry and pedantic that any attempt to conjure up humor, let alone Austenian humor, which is very mild and cheeky, is lost in the film’s focus on details.

The film is set in the 18th century and focuses on Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale), who settles down with her in-laws after becoming widowed. Her biggest goal for this awkward down-time in her life is to find suitable mates for not just her, but her shy daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark). The film revolves around the trouble both ladies have with meeting new matches, with Frederica catching the eye of a gullible soul named Reginald (Xavier Samuel), while Susan persistently tries to get her daughter to marry the lovable goof Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett). Sir James, despite frequently seeming at a loss for words, always seems to find a way to vomit out statements that are either short-sighted or downright hilarious in their ability to cause discomfort.

Love & Friendship
Directed by
Whit Stillman
Kate Beckinsale, Chloƫ Sevigny, Xavier Samuel
Release Date
3 June 2016
Steve’s Grade: C-

Then there’s Alicia Johnson (ChloĆ« Sevigny), Susan’s wing-woman throughout the entire task of getting her daughter to find a suitable beau.

Beckinsale finds herself in a performance she’s needed for years now; a role she can sink into without having to dawn layers of dark makeup in the midst of an ugly world like in the Underworld series nor be subjected to 2000’s fare that failed to showcase her true talents. Here, she’s a sharp-tongued dame that commits similar sins of Jane Austen’s Emma character in the way she tries to play matchmaker and get someone close to her to commit to the wrong man, though she doesn’t totally recognize it. Beckinsale’s ability to be both snarky, rude, but fiercely watchable almost feels like her subtly crying out to get more roles like this that fully accentuate her abilities.

The other strong performance, aside from a miscast Sevigny in a role that never really seems to find a direct purpose, is Bennett’s, who’s ability to be bumbling and say the wrong thing at the wrong time doesn’t feel like comedic overkill. In fact, quite the opposite, his unwarranted outbursts feel like the spurts of energy the film needs in order to be entertaining; what Love & Friendship doesn’t have is enough of them.

Much like Stillman’s other pictures, he meanders and drifts from setup to setup, only the setups in question offer little other than wealthy people talking in circles over one another and not listening to anything. The comedy falls flat for the most part, and even if it didn’t, it’s far too inconsistent, leaving the real problems of the film to surface, which is an abundance of characters who Stillman doesn’t give much to do (thought it’s more of a critique of Austen, who did the same thing with Emma).

What Love & Friendship ultimately boils down to is a film comprised of first-rate, Oscar-worthy cinematography (by Richard Van Oosterhout) and costume design that compliments a second-rate script with an uneven and methodically paced comedy and drama to make for a film that creates a beautiful divide if you see it in a multiplex full of people, I presume (only two other patrons were in my showing). You have a group of people exiting the theater claiming they’ve seen a masterpiece and another disgruntled bunch claiming they just saw the worst thing in their life. The former group refers to the others as Philistines, while the latter group refers to the others as hoity-toities. It’s a beautiful, (ill)mannered comedy setup that I’d gladly see Stillman take on in Austenian fashion over another dry, listless stroll through beautiful England where few laughs and memorable characters are to be found.