Jane Austen was pretty catty.
Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale) has just become a widow and needless to say, she needs a little help in life. She doesn’t have much money, many friends, or even all that much security in life to where she can feel safe and comfortable for the next few years of her life. That’s why, through her seductive and manipulative ways, she concocts a way and plan to charm the shorts off of the eligible bachelor Reginald De Courcy (Xavier Samuel). But trying to win the heart of Reginald will be a whole lot harder than she expected, mostly because some people know what she’s up to and let him know of it. While Reginald refuses to believe her sinister ways, there’s no denying that Lady Susan may be up to no good. And then, of course, her oldest daughter (Morfydd Clark) comes into the picture and seems to shake everything up involved with Lady Susan’s plan. What was once going to be an easy, but sneaky task of winning one man’s heart, has now turned into something a whole lot harder.
Period pieces aren’t necessarily my thing. Being a dude in his early-20’s, this may come as no surprise to anyone. Though I give them a try and, on the rare occasion, come away liking what I see, for the most part, period pieces just don’t always work because there’s a stuffiness to almost each and everyone of them that make me happy I’m seeing them by myself, and not my grandmother, so I don’t have to hear her jabber on and on about “how exquisite it all was.”
And while I’m at, Whit Stillman movies aren’t necessarily my thing, either. While his movies are mostly hit-or-miss for me, what bothers me the most about his flicks is that there seems to be so much of an investment in the catchy and clever wordplay between his characters, that he almost forgets about the characters themselves. Metropolitan is the rare exception where he combines both aspects quite well, but ever since then, it almost seems as if he’s forgotten about character-development and just tried his hardest to think of a neat way to get people laughing and leaving it at that.
That’s why I’m surprised that Love & Friendship was very much, my thing.
For one, it’s not a typical period piece like you’d expect. Sure, it’s source material is from a Jane Austen novella, but there’s something funny and brash about it all that it makes you think differently about all of the constructs/rules/guidelines that these societies seem to have held. In a way, Stillman sort of looks at the fake politeness and mannerly way everyone in the 18th century was, and decides to turn it all on its head. That means that, yes, people are made fun of, to their faces and are mostly shown that their silly ingrates.
And even though a lot of that same old clever wordplay is occurring here, it actually works in this world that Stillman puts us in. Since everyone is talking in such a plain and formal way, it’s almost refreshing to hear some of these characters talk in a slightly goofy manner, making the odd dialogue work and hit more effectively than you’d expect. While every so often there’s a line of dialogue that doesn’t quite work, or feels stilted, there’s another one that’s funny, and/or smart that you grow a greater appreciation for Stillman.
Don’t get me wrong, I still can’t stand some of his dialogue, but hey, at least he didn’t annoy me too much here.
But where the real pleasure and beauty of this film lies is within Kate Beckinsale’s wonderful performance as Lady Susan, someone who should actually be a whole lot more villainous than she is actually seen as in this movie. Beckinsale was great in the Last Days of Disco, which is why it’s no surprise that Stillman brought her back here, where it seems like she not only has the right ear for this dialogue, but knows how to make it funny and biting, even when you don’t expect it to be. Because Lady Susan is a sometimes cold woman, who doesn’t really care about anyone else’s feelings but her own, we’re left with the impression that she’s a bad person who we shouldn’t like, trust, or want to see happy by the end. However, Beckinsale is so charming in the role, that it’s kind of hard not to think the opposite.
For example, Lady Susan says and does a lot of things that everyone around her, given the time period, would not do or say. It’s like I said earlier about how polite and mannerly everyone in this society is; everyone’s thinking bad thoughts about the people around them, but they don’t want to create too much of a ruckus, so they keep quiet and let everything simmer inside of them. Lady Susan is not like that and it’s great to watch Beckinsale do dressing-downs of almost everyone around her, and not give a single care about it one bit.
In a way, it makes me wish Beckinsale would do more movies that challenge her like this, as opposed to the awfully boring Underworld flicks.
That said, everyone else does a terrific job here, too. Chloë Sevigny shows up as Lady Susan’s pal, Alicia Johnson, and the two engage in conversations that makes it appear like they’ve known each other for years; Stephen Fry briefly shows up as her husband and is fine, although, you can never really have enough Stephen Fry; Xavier Samuel is charming and handsome as Reginald, but also shows that there’s a little something more to him, like a heart and soul; and as Sir James Martin, the resident goober of the whole film, Tom Bennett steals every scene, earning laughs every time he says something. All of whom are good at Stillman’s dialogue, even if they do lapse into sometimes getting flustered and not knowing how to deliver it in an intelligible way that’s supposed to work.
But such is the case when you work with Whit Stillman, I guess.
Consensus: Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship makes good use of its 18th-century setting by making something of a smart commentary on it, while also offering laughs and interesting characters to keep it all worth watching for those out there who may not already be fans of period pieces.
7 / 10