An anti-heroineforthe ages
Jane Austen’s sense is beautifully married to Whit Stillman’s sensibility in this sharp, witty comedy of manners, writes
Kate Beckinsale and Tom Bennett in Love & Friendship
LOVE & FRIENDSHIP Directed by Whit Stillman. Starring Kate Beckinsale, Xavier Samuel, Morfydd Clark, Emma Greenwell, Tom Bennett, James Fleet, Jemma Redgrave, Justin Edwards, Jenn Murray, Stephen Fry, Chloë Sevigny. G cert, general release, 93 min Why, Mr Stillman, we are driven to conclude that, in your match with Miss Austen, you have engineered a union more perfect than any found in divine nature. The honeybee is less accommodated to the flower than are you to that child of Hampshire.
That’s what they’re saying, and they’re not wrong. Whit Stillman, director of urbane comedies such as Metropolitan and Barcelona, sounded like the ideal film-maker to tackle Jane Austen’s early novel Lady Susan. Such marriages, following their creation in heaven, often sink into the hell of good intentions. But Love & Friendship (cheeky ampersand there, Whit) fizzles with such comic elan that one prays for the union to last beyond infirmity.
Stillman casts Kate Beckinsale, a strong presence in the director’s The Last Days of Disco, as the cunning, unsentimental widow Lady Susan Vernon. We first see her setting one country estate into a state of emotional turmoil and fleeing amid furrowed protestations.
Among the funniest things in Love & Friendship (and that’s saying something) is the sheer terror that Lady Susan instils in wives and mothers of the Home Counties. The fear is, however, tempered by respect for her “genius”. No later Austen heroine exhibits quite this degree of quasi-martial calculation. In another society, Lady Susan could have commanded spy rings or whole navies.
The first of several intertwined intrigues – related at length to Susan’s American pal, Mrs Alicia Johnson (Chloë Sevigny) – kicks off when our anti-heroine visits her sister-in-law, Mrs Catherine Vernon (Emma Greenwell), and her agreeable husband, Mr Charles Vernon (Justin Edwards), at their country estate. We suspect that she has eyes on Catherine’s brother, Reginald De Courcy (Xavier Samuel).
Events become complicated when Lady Susan’s daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) – treated by mother with the affection one might lend to a verruca – arrives to turn this head and that. Maybe she might like to have a crack at the hilariously stupid Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett). “Cowper the poet? He also writes verse? Most impressive,” he says in a relatively lucid moment.
This beautifully crafted Irish co-production, much of it filmed on the Newbridge Estate in Co Dublin, leaves the viewer in no doubt that Susan is a victim of circumstance. Left relatively penniless in a society where woman are still seen as property, she is forced to rely on her peerless wits to fashion a life worth living.
Beckinsale retains a gimleteyed determination throughout, but the script leaves us in no doubt that Lady Susan fights as much for survival as domination. “We don’t live; we visit,” she tells her daughter at one point.
Nonetheless, both Stillman and Austen (Stillten? Austman?) relish their character’s highly creative amorality. The quotable lines fire out at such a pace that it is almost impossi- ble to keep up. Indeed, at times, the fire-hose of cynical aphorisms suggest high screwball such as His Girl Friday rather than Stillman’s more studied comedy.
“Too old to be governable, too young to die,” Susan says of a middle-aged husband. “The fees are too high to even think of paying, so, in a sense, it’s an economy,” she remarks when presented with a bill from her daughter’s school. You’ll want to write these down. You’ll want to see the film again.
Love & Friendship is handsome without indulging in period porn or the antique earthiness we got in Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice. Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh’s costumes are predictably smart (in both senses of the word). There is great support from local players such as Kelly Campbell and Ross Mac Mahon. The whole project sings sweetly, like cut glass tapped by silver.