The first time I saw Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship I fell head over heels. And like anything you love at first sight, you want to see it again — not just to get closer but to put it to the test. Love & Friendship passes with flying colors. I can’t think of a more wickedly modern romantic comedy, even though the film is based on Lady Susan, an unfinished epistolary novella that Jane Austen wrote in 1794 when she was about 20, and that remained unpublished until after her death.
So right away, we know something’s up. Stillman doesn’t adapt the works of others, even a genius like Austen. He’s a lone wolf, known for writing and directing his own elegantly witty films with large gaps in between: Metropolitan (1990), Barcelona (1994), The Last Days of Disco (1998). It wasn’t until 2011 that Stillman gave us Damsels in Distress, another comedy of bad manners among today’s young and restless. Happily, Austen and Stillman prove to be soulmates. Though the deliciously barbed dialogue stays firmly in period, the emotions bubbling up under the film’s cultivated surface have a this-just-in tartness.
A sublime Kate Beckinsale digs into the role of her career as Lady Susan Vernon, a widow with impeccable taste and the scheming ambitions of a Kardashian. Her base of operations is the Churchill estate owned by her brother-in-law Charles Vernon (Justin Edwards) whose wife Catherine (Emma Greenwell) is onto Susan’s wiles. Men, notably Catherine’s hottie younger brother, Reginald De Courcy (Xavier Samuel), find Susan’s beauty hard to resist, despite Catherine’s not unreasonable attempts to slut shame Susan. Something below the belt is calling the shots for Reginald and fitting right into Susan’s plan to marry the wealthy young man for play and profit.
All goes well until Susan’s daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark), shows up at Churchill, having fled school for reasons unknown. Seeing Reginald’s interest, Susan springs into action. She pushes her hapless daughter to marry Sir James Martin, played by the pricelessly funny Tom Bennett as an idiot who literally blithers on any number of topics, including what he calls “the 12 Commandments.” Frederica is horrified. “But marriage is for one’s whole life!” she insists. “Not in my experience,” laughs mommie dearest.
Lady Susan’s ally in finding financial and sexual satisfaction is Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny),the American wife of a wealthy Brit (a terrific Stephen Fry) who threatens to ship Alicia back to the wilds of Connecticut if she sides with “the most accomplished flirt in all England.” Of course, Alicia does just that, giving Sevigny and Beckinsale — costars in Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco — another chance to plot like conspirators and let it rip. The language, a lyrical blend of Austen and Stillman, is a kind of music, the kind that bewitches even as it stings. I could hear it on a continuous loop. Austen wrote her novel in the form of letters, which Stillman translates into scenes that delight the eye and challenge the ear with verbal loop-the-loops. Austen often used the word “amiable” to describe something that tickled her fancy. Stillman’s Love & Friendship is far more than amiable, it’s pure pleasure and one of the best movies of the year.