Love & Friendship (2016) ☆☆☆ (3/4): Stillman & Austen

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“Love & Friendship” is as witty and delightful as we can expect from the combination between Jane Austen and Whit Stillman, who fit well with each other as much as Cormac McCarthy and the Coen Brothers in “No Country for Old Men” (2007). Like Austen, Stillman is an astute, intelligent storyteller who is good at handling smart, haughty characters, and his new movie has a small naughty fun with its heroine who is a lot different from the more good-hearted and well-mannered heroines of Austen’s novels

Based on Austen’s short novel “Lady Susan”, which was written before her six novels but was published more than 50 years after her death, the movie mainly revolves around the schemes of Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale). As a sassy woman who is still young and beautiful despite being recently widowed, Lady Susan has no qualms about using her wit and beauty to charm guys around her, and we hear later that she has had a certain reputation around London since her husband’s early death.

While she needs to marry again for her economic stability, her priority at present is marrying off her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) to a wealthy suitor, but, as shown from the opening sequence of the movie, things did not go well for her recently. While she tried to get Frederica engaged with Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett) during her stay at the Manwaring estate, Lady Susan happened to get herself involved with Lord Manwaring (Lochlann O’Mearáin) instead, so now she has to leave the estate as his wife is quite upset about her husband’s infidelity.

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After consoled a bit by her American friend Alicia (Chloë Sevigny), Lady Susan comes down to Churchill, where the estate belonging to her brother-in-law Charles (Justin Edwards) is located. Although his wife Catherine (Emma Greenwell) does not like Lady Susan for good reasons, Charles cordially welcomes his sister-in-law into his house anyway, and Lady Susan soon sees another opportunity from Catherine’s brother Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel). While he is apparently around Frederica’s age, he also looks like someone who can marry Lady Susan, and she is certainly motivated by the fact that he is the sole heir of his family estate.

Even though he is well aware of her reputation, Reginald finds himself quickly charmed by Lady Susan as spending more time with her, and this certainly alarms not only Catherine and but also his parents. While Reginald emphasizes that he and Lady Susan are just friends, but what is happening between them is pretty clear to Catherine while Charles remains oblivious to how selfish and opportunistic his sister-in-law actually is.

Of course, the situation becomes more complicated than expected for Lady Susan, and Stillman’s adapted screenplay gives us several funny moments as she and other characters maintain their civilized attitude as usual. While trying to get Reginald closer to her, Lady Susan faces another difficulty when her daughter turns out to be reluctant about marrying Sir James, and then there also comes another private matter she has to deal with.

Deliciously wily and devious in her edgy comic performance, Kate Beckinsale reminds us again that she is too talented to be remembered only for “Underworld” (2002) and its following sequels. As a matter of fact, she was wonderfully haughty and snobbish in Stillman’s previous work “The Last Days of Disco” (1998), and “Friends & Friendship” gives her another fun role to play with gusto. Lady Susan is not exactly a likable character, but she is witty and charming enough to watch at least thanks to Beckinsale, and we come to enjoy how she attempts to manipulate everyone around her including her own daughter.

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The supporting performers surrounding Beckinsale are effective in their broad archetype roles. Chloë Sevigny, who previously co-starred along with Beckinsale in “The Last Days of Disco”, complements Beckinsale well during their scenes, and Stephen Fry is unflappable as Alicia’s businessman husband, who does not approve of his wife’s relationship with her close friend at all for an understandable personal reason. While Morfydd Clark and Xavier Samuel are sympathetic as the least jaded characters in the movie, Tom Bennett is simply hilarious as an ebullient but incorrigibly dim-witted guy who has no idea on how silly and embarrassing he is in front of others. One of his best moments comes from when Sir James tries to impress Frederica and others in the drawing room, and I and other audiences could not help but chuckle as watching the other characters flabbergasted by Sir James’ cheerful ignorance on a certain piece of biblical knowledge.

After making his first three films “Metropolitan” (1990), “Barcelona” (1994), and “The Last Days of Disco”, Stillman had remained silent for more than 10 years, and then he came back with “Damsels in Distress” (2011). After watching “Damsels in Distress”, I belatedly watched “Metropolitan” and “The Last Days of Disco”, and I admired their witty, intelligent comedy although I was not that wholly enthusiastic about them as a foreign audience not so familiar with their cultural backgrounds.

Maybe because of my familiarity with Austen’s novels (I read all of them except “Northanger Abbey”), I found that “Love & Friendship” is a little more enjoyable than Stillman’s other works. Austen’s characters are always fun to watch whenever they say one thing while not saying another thing, and Stillman, Beckinsale, and the other cast members did a nice job of conveying that sense of fun to us.

Sidenote: The title of the movie is changed to “Lady Susan” here in South Korea.

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