‘Love and Friendship’ – Movie Review

Directed by Whit Stillman
Starring Kate Beckinsale, Chloë Sevigny
Running Time 1 Hr., 34 Mins., PG
My Rating: B+

I like period pieces about as much as a redneck likes a chilled glass of rosé (insufferable is the frequently too impeccable mounting of posh costumery and mannered dialogue) but Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship, adapted from Jane Austen’s unfinished novella Lady Susan, makes for a different case.  A romantic comedy so decadently witty it’d potentially more closely resemble a Luis Buñuel helmed comedy of manners if it weren’t so decked out in 18th century era spunk, we tend to forget its setting guided limitations and see it as a perfectly modern work to be relished.

After coming back from a thirteen year absence from filmmaking with 2011’s amiable (if forgettable) Damsels in Distress, 2016’s Love & Friendship finds Stillman (Metropolitan, Barcelona) roaring back to the top of the indie food chain.  As it goes for period pieces aplenty, we’re uniformly more drawn to the otherworldly, aristocratic dreamworlds set in motion than we are to the material at hand. But without fail, Love & Friendship puts its sharpened dialogue before anything else, its sheen lavish but nevertheless toned down as a way to heighten Stillman’s bougie targeted commentary.

Set in the late 1700s, the film follows the misadventures of Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale), a calculating socialite desperate to claw back to the peak of the social ladder after her wealthy husband suddenly dies. Using her teenage daughter (Morfydd Clark) as a ploy to distract from her own manipulations (she figures the girl, at the end of her teenage years, is now well-suited to attain a man of her own) we watch, with unabashed delight, as she hungrily lusts after the dim-witted Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), with whom she doesn’t have a romantic connection but rather a fiscal one. 

Calm and collected, she seems apt to win nearly anyone over with her slithery charisma alone. One wrong move, though, and she very well may be forced to go back to the abominable land known as square one, and that’s not somewhere this professional schemer is much willing to head toward.

And we don’t want to see Lady Susan’s ambitions collapse anyway. She’s the kind of morally ambiguous character we’d like to see get away with something sinful, a la Tom Ripley or Norman Bates. The role gives Beckinsale, oftentimes cast aside as a reliable slab of eye candy to be visually admired but not always taken seriously, the chance to announce herself as standing among her generation’s most underrated actresses.

Through Lady Susan is she provided with a vehicle that exploits her comedic chops just as much as it does her startling ability to near offhandedly handle the verbal exercises Stillman readily throws at her.  Beautifully self-possessed, she gives one of the best performances of 2016.Stillman’s writing and direction is as dryly acerbic as ever, but it’s his winning ensemble that accentuates the sum of its parts. 

Chloë Sevigny, as Lady Susan’s closest confidant, is a wry hoot as a Yankee who prefers the comforts of affluent English society to the less glamorous opportunities of America. Bennett is even better as an imbecilic love interest never to be undermined because his idiocy is so endearing, so effortlessly funny. But we’re enchanted by Stillman’s effortless staging.

An unconventional but fun adaptation, Love & Friendship is a cinematic parfait of swank and substance that should practically boast in its being among the premier movies of 2016.

A student at the University of Washington, Blake will major in Visual Communications or Journalism.  petersonreviews.com

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