Review: Love & Friendship (2016)

It’s a wonder that Whit Stillman didn’t adapt Jane Austen sooner. Much like Austen’s novels, Stillman’s films, including the wonderful Metropolitan and Last Days of Disco, are comedies of manners. They rely on verbal wit and social decorum to provide conflict for their narratives. His latest, Love & Friendship, adapted from Austen’s novella Lady Susan, is a fitting marriage of artistic sensibilities.

Love & Friendship follows Kate Beckinsale’s Lady Susan as she works to arrange an advantageous marriage for her quiet daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark). The vast majority of the film takes place in drawing rooms, where Susan manipulates in-laws and friends in order to arrange an ideal match.

If Love & Friendship is more callous than the average Austen, it still has its fair share of warmth, mostly supplied by the sublime comedy of Tom Bennett as simpleton suitor, Sir James Martin. He is a man of rapturous stupidity and awkward physicality. For instance, he marvels over the discovery of green peas on his plate and hops around like a prancing bunny during a formal dance. He’s the standout character in a film full of intriguing ones. However, Kate Beckinsale as Lady Susan is not to be outdone. She is wonderful and carries the film effortlessly with her charms.

Still, for all the film’s pleasures, it could’ve been great if Stillman knew how to move and position a camera. He shoots in stationary medium wide throughout the entirety of the film, as if caged in by the confined quarters of his locations. As well, each scene is an ellipsis, rarely than a full sentence. Scenes rarely last more than two minutes, and Stillman does nothing to transition from one scene to the next. The effect is to make the film airless. Being airless is great for sustaining the pace of verbal wit, but it squeezes out any chance of greater resonance. In the end, Love & Friendship is a delightful little dollop of a film, but it’s more an example of clever writing than great filmmaking.

7 out of 10

Directed by Whit Stillman; written by Whit Stillman based on Lady Susan by Jane Austen; starring Kate Beckinsale, Xavier Samuel, Emma Greenwell, Morfydd Clark, Jemma Redgrave, Tom Bennett, James Fleet, Justin Edwards, Jenn Murray, Stephen Fry, and Chloë Sevigny.