Love & Friendship should be an easy sell.
It’s Whit Stillman’s version of Jane Austen.
That alone should get you into the cinema.
It’s a wonderful film; witty, warm and generous-hearted, but also spiky and tart and filled with a plethora of zingers.
It’s also cinematically an undiscovered Austen and after so many versions of Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility and Emma that have, it’s refreshing to see something new.
Love & Friendship is an adaptation of young Jane Austen’s novella Lady Susan, believed to have been written in the mid 1790s but revised up to a fair copy prepared in 1805 and finally published by her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, in 1871.
Set in the 1790s, earlier than most Austen tales, Love and Friendship concerns beautiful young widow Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) who has come to Churchill, the estate of her in-laws, to wait out colourful rumours about her dalliances circulating through polite society.
Beckinsale, reuniting with Stillman for the first time since The Last Days of Disco, is on top form as Lady Susan. I am not normally a fan, but that may be because she usually appears in dreadful films (there’s yet another Underworld movie in the works.) But she’s brilliant here as a character who is technically the villain, doing her best to thwart the young lovers and whatnot, and if this was a different sort of film, she would probably get her comeuppance. But this is Austen, after all, where everything always works out (mostly) for the best, and this is also Stillman, a director who is very good at observing people, and whose sensibilities are well-suited to a story rooted in rigid social conventions.
Lady Susan is an impoverished widow,and homeless, relying on the generosity of in-laws at their country estate, Churchill. While there, she seizes an opportunity to grab herself a new husband and to marry off her eligible but mousy daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark).
There are all the formalities of the upper class of Regency England: calling cards, country dances, flouncy hats, many cups of tea. Butlers, maids and footmen move quietly, observe everything and say nothing. But there is something else, too, a slight undercurrent of seriousness to all the comic goings-on.
The cast is top-notch, and everyone has a great time. Stephen Fry makes an appearance that is little more than a cameo. Tom Bennett almost steals the film as the rich and buffoonish Sir James Martin, the archetypal upper-class twit, a man who is singularly pleased when he first sees peas, and who believes that there were originally twelve commandments, prompting him to wonder which two they got rid of. Another Stillman veteran, Chloe Sevigny also appears as Lady Susan’s friend and confidant.
I won’t go into detail about the plot; it’s hardly complicated, anyway, and it’s a joy to discover the story.
The costume and production design are exactly what you would expect of a decent period film. Love & Friendship was filmed in Ireland in places such as Russborough House and Newbridge House.
Verdict: Four Tiny Green Balls out of Five