While undeniably very funny and thoroughly entertaining, Love & Friendship — as with most of Stillman’s films — lacks warmth.
Literature classes have been devoted to the enduring popularity of Jane Austen’s sharply written, finely balanced novels that continue to spawn spoofs, pastiches (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies came out earlier this year and was previously reviewed in this column), and seemingly endless film adaptations.
With Love & Friendship though, the formula is a little different. The American director Whit Stillman’s biting adaptation of a little-known epistolary novel by Austen before she hit her peak is a daring foray into an arena where so many have excelled, most notably Ang Lee with his sublime 1995 adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, the screenplay for which was written by no less than Emma Thompson, who also stars as the sensible Eleanor alongside Kate Winslet’s free-spirited Marianne.
Love & Friendship is adapted from Lady Susan, a piece of Austen “juvenilia” — a literary term for works that are considered slightly immature but still crucial to the understanding of the writer’s development. That somewhat immature voice is marked in Love & Friendship by the extremely witty, overly verbose dialogue which lacks just that bit of levity and warmth that is so evident in Austen’s later novels.
The film is a delight to watch though, made as it is with much dexterity and excellent casting. Kate Beckinsale steals the show as the clever, manipulative Lady Susan Vernon who, being recently widowed, is on a mission to find herself, and her innocent daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark), suitable, extremely wealthy and, of course, aristocratic husbands.
The plot is essentially a caper, with Lady Susan unabashedly winding every eligible man around her finger while she blithely confesses her schemes, without an iota of remorse, to her loyal but slightly bland American friend Alicia Johnson (Chloë Sevigny), who has been forbidden by her very square husband Mr. Johnson (the delightful Stephen Fry) from associating with her scandalous pal.
In modern terms, Lady Susan would be deemed a shameless, compulsive liar, or even a sociopath. But in the days when women had to marry to keep themselves from falling into abject poverty, the social context of this woman’s outrageous antics perhaps calls for a measure of understanding of the limitations imposed on women at the time.
Still, while undeniably very funny and thoroughly entertaining, Love & Friendship — as with most of Stillman’s films — lacks warmth. There is no Elizabeth Bennet or even the proud Emma here to bring real gravity to this light, frivolous film that does not hesitate to poke fun at every single one of its characters, barring the lovely Frederica who, thankfully, is the (only) moral anchor in the otherwise insufferably snobby, socially conscious world of this film — a world that Austen succeeded in both rebuking and celebrating with her luminous prose.