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Austentatious: Love And Friendship Reviewed
Patrick Gamble , May 28th, 2016 09:31

Patrick Gamble reviews Whit Stillman's new Jane Austen adaptation, out in cinemas now.

Comedies of manners about privileged individuals struggling to embrace the era they're born into is a description that could be directed at the works of either Jane Austen or American director Whit Stillman. This sense of detachment has long informed Stillman’s work and, coupled with their verbose dialogue and fascination with class, has seen his films repeated likened to Austen’s novels. With Love And Friendship these comparisons are finally put to the test, with Stillman crafting a riotous comedy from Lady Susan, an epistolary novel unpublished in Austen’s lifetime.

Stillman’s films, not unlike Austen’s novels, are ornate cabinets of wonder: elegant pieces, that once opened, reveal a world of enchantment, not to mention a few dark secrets. Love And Friendship focuses on the life of Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale), a recently widowed woman considered “the most accomplished flirt in all England”. The film opens with her moving from one stately manor to another, leaving a trail of furious wives and heartbroken men in her wake. She plans to seek refuge in Churchill, the home of her brother-in-law Charles Vernon (Justin Edwards), and his wife, Catherine (Emma Greenwell). Susan is also accompanied by her companion Mrs Cross (Kelly Campbell) to “pack and unpack” but insists, “As there’s a friendship involved I’m sure the paying of wages would be offensive to us both”.

Unfortunately for Susan, word of her previous misdemeanours and her “uncanny understanding of men’s natures” has surpassed her, and she’s met with a frosty reception by Catherine, although this doesn’t stop her placing Catherine’s younger brother, Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel) firmly in her sights. Susan, aware of Catherine’s disapproval, also has another plan to attain the financial security afforded by a marriage of convenience, and plans to join her daughter, Frederica (Moryfydd Clark) in matrimony to the “vastly rich, yet rather simple” Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett) – a plan she describes in great detail during the numerous secret meetings with her American confidant Alicia Johnson (Chloë Sevigny). Indeed, it would appear that the film’s title, taken from another of Austen’s novellas is somewhat of a misnomer, with this tale of arranged marriages and secret correspondence far more concerned with Lady Susan’s attempts to traverse the constraints of her era, than the acquaintances and romantic endeavours of her relations.

Ever since Stillman’s debut, Metropolitan, with its references to Mansfield Park, his work has always been compared to Austen’s. Whilst other adaptations of Austen’s books prioritise their romantic sub-plots over her language, Stillman utilises the letter writing structure of Austen’s novella to celebrate the prose. The letters have been transferred into a series of exchanges that fizz with all the excitement and anticipation of receiving correspondence from a dear one, no more so than Susan’s secret meetings with Alicia, with their playful exchanges providing the film with some of its wittiest and most iconoclastic dialogue. In one scene in particular Susan rebukes a man who calls to her from across a busy courtyard. “How dare you sir! I will have you whipped!” she barks back. Asked by Alicia if she knows the man, she casually replies, “I know him well. I would never speak to a stranger like that.” As with Stillman’s previous work, conversation is used to advance the drama. This isn’t to say the ornate interiors and ornamental costume design synonymous with the period drama aren’t on display, but the charm and allure of Love And Friendship comes not from its luxurious embellishments but the intellectual vigour embedded in the levity and volubility of Stillman’s script. Indeed, much of the film’s drama is veiled beneath an air of sophistication, a meticulously constructed period façade concealing a barrage of scabrous synonyms and sly defamations.

Being suspended between the present and the past is a feeling that has long informed Stillman’s work. First there were the self-proclaimed "Urban Haute Bourgeoisie" of Metropolitan whose formal evening wear and lengthy debates on Regency era literature were incongruous to their 90’s Manhattan surroundings, and later there were the publishing assistants of Last Days Of Disco who mourned the death of the New York nightclub era long after the 80s had arrived. Stillman’s characters often inhabit periods they don’t belong to and his retreat into this world of landed gentry could be seen as a cowardly withdrawal into the conservative milieu his character’s often long for. Yet, the world of Love And Friendship is similarly out of synch with the literature that emanated during the Regency era. It’s a world where bumbling men are merely unwitting pawns in the unashamed power plays of strong intelligent women who’ve learned to control them. Whilst the men all ogle and fall-over backwards to accommodate Susan’s whims, the women remain unmoved by her schemes, especially Catherine who instantly sees through Susan’s plan, yet even she finds herself powerless as Susan cajoles her husband and woos her brother. Although Susan is able to attract the eye of even the stuffiest of suitor it’s ultimately her intelligent understanding of her surroundings that allows her to shine, a perfect blend of Austen’s heightened social acuity and Stillman’s wicked sense of humour.

Whilst the film’s sense of shrewd female liberation is evident in how Susan effortlessly manipulates her men (refreshingly through her arguments and ideas, rather than her beauty), Stillman gives her a helping hand by including some delightfully goofy men to play-off. And there’s none goofier than Sir James Martin. While Beckinsale delivers a masterful performance, with her acid tongued delivery and poise meaning she’s consistently a commanding presence, its Bennett as the film’s dim-witted suitor who bestows Austen’s prose with a distinctive Stillman accent. Typifying the tongue in cheek depiction of privilege that underlines all Stillman’s work, James feels like the foundation of all his characteristically naive socialites. He’s forever saying the wrong thing, from enthusing about Frederica’s reading habits, “So you read both verse and poetry!” to his delight at trying peas for the first time; “tiny green balls!”, His openmouthed candor is both charming and refreshingly droll for an Austen adaptation, even one as agile and nimble as this.

Stillman’s conservatism has often left critics and cinephiles uncomfortable. His work, resplendent with unlikeable characters, is often treated as a guilty indulgence, or dismissed as art-house cinema for the one percentile. Yet Stillman, who grew up in a left-wing household before adopting more conservative views when his father abandoned them, has always been fascinated by characters who struggle to identify with the class or era they’re born into. There’s a deep fascination with the rules and mechanisms of society in Love And Friendship and although it’s hard to pinpoint where Stillman’s love of pomp and ceremony ends and the mockery begins, his privileged hostility to privilege allows just enough room for the viewer to question how archaic these attitudes to gender and class really are today. Love And Friendship might be a sprightly retreat into the Regency era, yet this coming together of Austen’s prose and Stillman’s delightfully droll aesthetic is a marriage made in heaven.

Love And Friendship is in cinemas now