By: Muneeb Arshid
There have been many Jane Austen adaptations over the history of cinema. There’s been 2 adaptations based on Austen’s most famous novels, Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. Now, we are introduced to an adaptation of an 1871 novella called Lady Susan under the theatrical title of Love & Friendship.
Most people, of course, remember the 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, which was a period piece depicting the lives of 5 sisters as they dealt with society. That adaptation was very successful garnering four Academy Award Nominations. However, most of the criticisms of the film were about the script and how it was quite difficult to have to adapt a dense novel down to a 127-minute film adaptation. The argument was that other TV productions of Pride and Prejudice were better able to flesh out the nuances of the characters and their storylines.
Love & Friendship is in a completely different tone than the other Jane Austen film adaptations that we’ve seen prior. An entirely comedic, 18th-century look at the work of Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale), a recently widowed mother who as one character puts it is a “determined and accomplished flirt.” That line would come from Lady Susan’s own sister-in-law Catherine (Emma Greenwell) with whom Susan is staying with. Susan alongside trying to court Catherine’s younger brother Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel) for herself, is also trying to set her daughter Frederica Vernon (Morfydd Clark) with the hilariously funny Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), who is in a state that can only be explained to be slightly smitten with the younger Vernon. The same, however, cannot be said of Frederica, who literally runs away from school to get away from Martin.
This film is entirely about the characters and their interplay amongst themselves, but also the particular nuances that each actor employs for their characters. Of course, you have experienced actors in Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny and Stephen Fry who put in performances that exude class, especially in this Austen world, performances that don’t come as a surprise. The opening of the film actually introduces you to over 20 characters and does seem quite overwhelming as to how you’re going to remember all of them. But, once the story picks up and Lady Susan is introduced, it follows Susan around in her match-making escapade in and around London. The character of the film is definitely James Martin, who is explained to be “the simple, very wealthy, usually well-meaning and always foolish” suitor of Frederica who at one point is so amazed at the sight of having “little green balls on a plate” and is even more bemused when learning that they are called peas. All that can be said is that Tom Bennett has put in the performance of the year so far in a movie that has already gone straight to the top of my top of 2016 list.
The thing with Love and Friendship is that it is oddly modern in its portrayal of all these relationships, especially the way that director Whit Stillman resolves the story with the relationship between Lady Susan, James Martin and Lord Manwaring (Lochlann O’Mearáin). If you were to analyze the entire story as a whole, it would not be something that you could imagine be rather acceptable for the late 18th century. With notions of an oddly promiscuous lead woman who has the men around her under her control to a resolution where if Lady Susan was not more discreet would have gotten her serious punishment for the time for signs of adulterous behaviour. Lady Susan, herself seems to be a “run of the mill” mother, albeit flirtatious, only trying to create the best situation for her daughter… and of course, herself. This mother-like depiction doesn’t last very long when you as a viewer begin to understand Susan’s true intentions and oddly start to view her as a villainous character, as much as she can be a villain in a Jane Austen comedy.
This is Whit Stillman’s 5th film in 26 years and is a slight reversal of the way he’s constructed his previous films. He tends to bring a certain retro-esque feature to his modern films where a certain chivalry is present throughout those films. This reversal takes on an 18th-century story, where you would assume that chivalry and politeness would be the name of the game, but in reality, the underpinning is that he’s thrown in this complex 21st-century style theme around which Lady Susan has built her principles. I would be okay to have a film at the pace that Stillman works at, with an average of 1 film every 5-6 years if it is going to be of the quality that Love & Friendship has brought to the table. 2016 has been quite a slow start in terms of quality so it is quite refreshing to be able to watch with such quality as this where each character and each plot point is crucially connected throughout the film but also being aware enough to not completely take itself too seriously. Thus, Love & Friendship, along with going to the top of my 2016 list of favourite films, also receives an almost perfect grade of A (9.3/10).