Sundance 2016 | ‘Love & Friendship’ and the Wit of Whit

The misadventures of people who aren’t nearly as bright as they think they are, that’s the bread and butter of Whit Stillman and the three-course meal of Jane Austen. Separated by centuries, these two spry storytellers share an infectious love of sharp dialogue and self-inflicted romantic melodrama. A team up was probably inevitable, and it is of little surprise that the result of their union – Stillman’s Love & Friendship, adapted from Austen’s Lady Susan – is a crackling comedy of manners… many of them ill.

Kate Beckinsale plays Lady Susan Vernon Martin, a widow who must live on charity whether her benefactors realize it or not. She has a servant, but talk of money would simply embarrass them both, so it’s never come up. She’s staying with family, Catherine Vernon (Emma Greenwell) and her husband Charles (Justin Edwards) and her brother Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel), and they know all about Lady Susan’s many scandals, but politeness forbids they speak openly about the accusations. Politeness forbids they questions her shrewd manipulations. Politeness screws everything up, doesn’t it?

Stillman has a veritable army of characters to weave in an out of Love & Friendship, and despite his charmingly old-fashioned introductions (each character has a silent movie close-up, iris wide, explaining who they are and what they’re about) it takes a while to get acclimated. Love & Friendship takes place in a complex web of family, extended family, suitors and servants, and immersion is the only way to suss out why each character matters and who they’re constantly talking about. 

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

But once you’re involved, you’re intrigued. Lady Susan is a rare sort of character, devious to the point of villainy, and the poor rubes she dupes on a daily basis to do her bidding – whether it makes sense to them or not – are equally amusing as people and playthings. Kate Beckinsale, finally free from the doldrums of her b-movie action career, is an elegant Iago. She tells her only confidante, Mrs. Johnson (Chloe Sevigny), exactly what she what she is conniving, and then she does it, and we watch her pawns scatter across the table.

Lady Susan isn’t conning her family for her own amusement (although obviously that’s part of it). Love & Friendship takes place in an era when women without husbands had few options, so being suddenly without one forces her to do whatever is necessary to survive. And of course she must survive in luxury. She prods her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) into accepting the proposal of Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), a fool of the highest order. He capers throughout the film, blissfully ignorant that everyone is smarter than he is and that peas aren’t much of a novelty. Or that there aren’t twelve commandments. Or that everyone would prefer he leave the room immediately and never come back. But he’s so, so rich.

Bennett may steal some scenes with his happily oafish performance, but this is Whit Stillman’s show, and it feels very much his. The hand of Jane Austen is ever present but the downplayed opulence and relaxed atmosphere are of a piece with Barcelona and Metropolitan. This isn’t a costume drama, it’s a drama that happens to need costumes, and that’s only when it isn’t a farce. Catty barbs are in abundance, all of them witty, and the tragedy of polite society – that the thin veneer of propriety is all one ever needs to be rude as hell – is exploited for every joke Stillman can find.

Love & Friendship has very little love, and only a modicum of friendship. It is a lovely and intricate web with a seductive spider at the center, played deftly by Kate Beckinsale and written sharply by Jane Austen and Whit Stillman. She bites, but you will apologize for getting in the way of her mouth. And you will thank her for the exquisite displeasure of her company.

Top Photo Courtesy of Sundance Institute

William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.

 

The Top 50 Must-See Sundance Movies: