Whit Stillman’s films are often concerned with the absurdities of human interactions. His latest, Love & Friendship, is no different – except that it’s based on a Jane Austen novella. Yet Stillman, whose previous work like 2009’s Damsels in Distress focuses in a skew-eyed perspective of modern America, is the perfect fit. Based on the Austen’s epistolary Lady Susan, written in 1794 but not published until fifty years after her death, Stillman’s period comedy centres on Kate Beckinsale’s Lady Susan Vernon, a recently widowed socialite whose gallivanting around London since her husband’s death has caused her reputation to plummet. She’s a Machiavellian schemer who succeeds through arrogance and flirtation, wanting nothing more than a comfortable life but with the chance for some seduction on the side.
Susan is a literary cousin of Austen’s Emma, in this story trying to arrange the marriage of her daughter Federica (Morfydd Clark) to the simple-minded, “a bit of a rattle” Sir James Martin (a scene-stealing Tom Bennett), while herself wooing the handsome, wealthy young bachelor Reginald de Courcy (Xavier Samuel). Meanwhile Reginald’s sister (Emma Greenwell) is appalled that her brother has been sucked in by Susan’s manipulation, embarking herself on a plot to thwart Susan’s charms. Chloe Sevingny, who starred alongside Beckinsale in Stillman’s Last Days of Disco, serves as Susan’s confidante, an equally morally challenged confidante who herself is married to an older man (Stephen Fry) with whom she is comfortable but does not love. It’s a pleasant surprise to see Beckinsale excel as Susan. She is deliciously articulate in her rapid-fire dialogue, running rings around victims of her flirtations as they – like us – try and keep up with her.
The speed of dialogue may be too much for some, but for those willing to keep up, Stillman’s script is pure joy. Visually, Love & Friendship isn’t too far from a typical Austen period piece like Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice, but in focussing so emphatically on comedy, it feels fresh, perhaps the best Austen adaptation since Ang Lee’s Sense & Sensibility. There are weddings and love affairs, but the whole thing has an air of an anti-romance, that for a woman marriage is being subsumed to someone “too old to love, too young to die”. Perhaps Stillman hopes to highlight the eternal absurdity of period dramas such as these, so consumed they are with romance and so often ending on marriage – making it subversive when indeed this story does. Still, there’s little time to think on lofty themes Austen might have been contemplating – Stillman’s film is such a brisk, breezy delight.
The 2016 Sundance Film Festival takes place between 21-31 January. Follow our coverage here.
Ed Frankl | @Ed_Frankl