LOVE & FRIENDSHIP (2016, directed by Whit Stillman, 92 minutes, U.S.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC Whit Stillman’s world of arch comic verbosity has always had the stiff air of ingrained upper crust manners, so the idea of Stillman doing a period Jane Austin adaptation seemed perhaps a bit too spot-on. Instead, it’s a match made in heaven. Far livelier then your typical velvety old British romance, Love and Friendship finds Stillman snapping into great mid-career form as he propels Kate Beckinsale gliding through stately manors and defying the patriarchy by steadily willing her own destiny.
Set adrift since becoming a widow, Lady Susan washes up at the doorstep of her brother-in-law and his wife, the DeCourcys, whom duty propels to shelter this woman of controversy. The stark reality of how a woman’s fate depends on ingratiating themselves to men gives the gracefully conniving Lady Susan the admirable veneer of a survivor, despite the lengths she will go to in order to survive. Lady Susan soon sets out to seduce Madame DeCourcy’s visiting young brother (Xavier Samuel) and when Lady Susan’s daughter Federica runs away from boarding school, Lady Susan sets about to find a man for her as well.
Whitman first three films, Metropolitans, Barcelona, and The Last Days of Disco showed off his knack for putting overly-witty, over-written dialogue into the mouths of young people without turning them into mere improbable mouthpieces for Stillman’s weary comic world view. In 2011, after a 13-year hiatus, Stillman returned with yet another college-age comedy, Damsel In Distress with the daffy and delightful Greta Gerwig. The film was a success but for me Stillman, then in his late 50s, seemed to lose his feel for young people, making an overly-whimsy work that never found its feet. While Love and Friendship‘s period setting covers Stillman’s love of wordy dialogue, for the first time he is writing and directing a largely middle-aged cast, and getting some of the finest performances of his career.
Of course it’s Beckinsale’s show. Her naturally cool demeanor, used in the past to dispatch werewolves in the Underworld franchise, is also perfect for delivering Lady Susan’s casual barbs and flirtations. Pairing her again with her co-star from The Last Days of Disco, the expressive Chloe Seviguy as her best friend Alicia gives her a perfect foil to trade the gossip of the day. But it Is hard to forget Tom Bennett as Sir James Martin, the suitor Lady Susan is pushing on her very unreceptive daughter. Bennett performance is a comic masterpiece playing the social anxious Sir James. The character’s fumbling leaves everyone around him speechless, a silence Sir James will compulsively fill with the most blithering of ramblings. Stillman is a perfect director at capturing the particularly British sport of public humiliation.
Stillman’s rather loose adaptation of the source material wonderfully sustains the story of Lady Susan’s mixed triumph and while it doesn’t remake the genre of Austin adaptations, it provides the most shearly entertaining examples in years. For a director who seemed like he might’ve painted himself into a corner chasing dizzy youth, this embrace of the stuffy old chamber comedy feels surprisingly liberating.