[This is a re-post of my review from the 2016 Sundance Film Festival; Love & Friendship opens today in limited release.]
Writer-director Whit Stillman relishes societal pomposity and self-obsessed characters, and his latest film, Love & Friendship, shows that he’s adept at skewering ridiculous relationships and selfish people no matter what setting. Although the film is based off Jane Austen’s novella Lady Susan, Love & Friendship has far more in common with Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco, Metropolitan, and Damsels in Distress than Emma, Pride & Prejudice, and Sense & Sensibility. And yet while Stillman and Austen work well together, eventually the pairing loses some of its charm as the director doesn’t seem to know what to do with his source material.
Stillman tries to open the film by clarifying the complex web of relationships between his characters, but only serves to muddle the simple opening that Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) has lost her standing at Langford and has been forced to move in with relatives at the less impressive Churchill. Her main goal is to get her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) married off to the wealthy but dim-witted Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett). Meanwhile, Lady Susan is striking up a rapport with the handsome Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel), much to the chagrin of his parents, who see Lady Susan (rightfully) as a ruthless social climber. This complex web of relations shifts and fluctuates as Lady Susan jockeys for not only the best position, but also to make sure her foes are duly chastened.
In more mainstream Austen adaptations, the smart female lead tends to be the hero, but Stillman admires Lady Susan’s wickedness. It was a stroke of genius casting not only Beckinsale, but also casting her Last Days of Disco co-star Chloe Sevigny as her American friend Alicia Johnson to hammer home that the character’s unrelenting self-interest and total obliviousness to the happiness of others knows no boundaries, including time period. The characters are transcendent even if Stillman goes to great lengths to keep his film feeling very much of the early 19th century.
Love & Friendship asks a lot of its audience (it asks even more if it’s the fourth film you’ve seen that day and you’ve got a headache so bad that you’re feeling it in your molars) when it comes to not only keeping up with the relationships but also the dialogue. For most of the movie, I felt I was just keeping my head above water, and even then there were times I would have to shrug and accept that I didn’t remember who Lord Manwaring (Lochlann O’Mearáin) was, and have to swim on regardless.
Thankfully, a movie like Love & Friendship lends itself to this kind of viewing thanks to the charming performances and confident attitude. It’s almost Shakespearean in that you may feel the distance in setting, but the characters are all too familiar, and the constant sniping, backhanded compliments, and scheming come off as incredibly modern and entertaining.
And yet, the movie eventually hits a wall where it doesn’t seem to know what it’s doing with Lady Susan and all her maneuvering. We’re having so much fun, but we have to stop and wonder why we care. Some of the characters are likable enough, but watching another Stillman story but just in different clothing loses its appeal when he doesn’t do anything new. He may be comfortable with Austen, but with Love & Friendship comfort eventually leads to malaise.
That’s probably why other directors haven’t rushed to adapt Lady Susan. Instead of a strong female protagonist who has a strong story worth cheering for, Lady Susan is about a despicable person who should be reviled if she wasn’t so comically self-deluded. For other filmmakers, that’s a red flag to stay away. For Stillman, it’s an opportunity to return to his favorite playground and run wild. It’s a joy to see him to see him at work until it becomes exhausting.