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Categories: Movie Reviews

Kate Beckinsale is endlessly entertaining in the lead role in this Whit Stillman-directed film. 

Love & Friendship 4

Love & Friendship is the new film by acclaimed director Whit Stillman (The Last Days of Disco, Metropolitan) who has adapted Lady Susan, Jane Austen’s unpublished novella, into a spectacular costume drama. A Q&A followed the UK premiere in London with the filmmaker and star of the film. Kate Beckinsale also worked with Stillman to develop the role of Lady Susan over many years. 

A strong female narrative

Lady Susan is a fast-talking, fast-witted if somewhat waspish widow who is rumoured to be enjoying a colourful dalliance with the “divinely attractive” married Lord Manwaring (Lochlan O’Mearáin).

Impoverished but never cowed by her reduced circumstances, she descends on her rich brother’s country house in the hope of avoiding the rumours. At the same time, she is trying to arrange for Frederica, her teenage daughter, to marry a rich man who can support them both. However, foolish Frederica (Morfydd Clark) has already rejected a proposal by the wealthy buffoon Sir James Martin (played with delicious comic timing by Tom Bennett in his first film role). Matters become increasingly complicated when Lady Susan herself attracts the simultaneous attentions of the young, handsome Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel) and Sir James, whilst continuing to dally secretly with Manwaring. 

The titular friendship is with Alicia Johnson (played by American actress Chloë Sevigny, who also worked with Stillman and Beckinsale in the The Last Days of Disco). Her husband, played by Stephen Fry, has forbidden Alicia to mix with Lady Susan, threatening to banish his wife to the social outpost of Connecticut if she does. It doesn’t prevent plotting, gossiping and machinations between the two women.

Lady Susan never lets anything stand in the way of her plans. Kate Beckinsale is well-cast as the elegant socialite and “the most famous flirt in Britain”, whose loquacious rhetoric ensures that her manipulative scheming bears fruit. However, she’s never really malicious, and the only person who’s hurt by her ambitions is the betrayed and histrionic Lady Manwaring, portrayed damply by Jenn Murray. The excellent supporting cast includes Justin Edwards as Lady Susan’s brother, with Jemma Redgrave and James Fleet as the DeCourcy parents fearful for their son’s potential future as Lady Susan’s new husband.

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A subversive and frequently droll take

Austen fans will enjoy this celebration of human intelligence. It’s a comedy of manners, with characters blissfully unaware of their own foibles. Somehow it’s all the more impressive because Stillman is American, and this is very unlike his other films. As the story is largely unknown, Stillman has been able to expand Austen’s juvenilia into a feature narrative without offending purists. However, it’s taken 12 years to bring the script to the screen. There is subtle innuendo in his script that gives it a more relevant and grounded tone, with broad comedy balanced by sophisticated word play. Stillman recalled that the script was continually enhanced during filming. 

Whilst letters were one of the easy ways to find out what someone was thinking in Austen’s time, he’s limited their use to just three. Characters have been created to allow Lady Susan a confidante so that we can know what she’s thinking and planning, and her candid and often covert conversations with Alicia also helps with this.

Presented in a different costume style

If you’re used to Jane Austen productions in pale, empire line muslin frocks and ribbon-trimmed bonnets as typified in many British TV adaptations over the years, Love and Friendship is very different. It has a lush, silken costume style more reminiscent of Dangerous Liaisons. Topped with broad hats and fringed with feathers, the look is much more opulent and colourful which gives the whole production a more sensual feel.

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It’s notable for a lot of elegant hair – wigs, ringlets and piled-up curls, but a small quibble might be that the lead women’s makeup seems too modern and obvious. The era is well-portrayed and captured beautifully by cinematographer Richard Van Oosterhout, but frequently supporting characters such as footmen spend a lot of time walking around with their hands gripped stiffly in front of them or lighting totally unnecessary candles in broad daylight. 

An unusual Irish/French/Dutch Co-production supported by the Irish Film Board

The production was filmed in Ireland using locations that look entirely British. Stillman talked about how much easier it was to film in Ireland as there are many houses and streets there that looked like London in 1800s. The shoot took just 26 days, but at no point does the narrative feel rushed. There’s a striking soundtrack using both well-known and obscure works by Handel, Purcell, Charpentier, Mozart, Vivaldi as well as less frequently recorded composers such as Frémart, Boyce, Jadin, and Vogel.

There is much to like here

This is a modern take on Austen, but it still honours her style and wit, and highlights the constraints of society on women and widows in the 1800s. Lady Susan isn’t a warmhearted woman you’d necessarily want to welcome into your home, but as long as she’s on screen and at arm’s length, she’s an entertaining protagonist. 

Love and Friendship is out now in UK cinemas.

A D Cooper is a director, producer, writer and multi-media copywriter. She’s won awards for advertising writing, for screenplays long and short, written 80+ scripts for Ninja Warrior (Challenge TV) and published articles, short stories and joke books. Weary of waiting for someone to film her scripts, she started directing in 2010 creating a slate of short films including two corporates, a documentary and a museum installation. All of her fiction shorts for Hurcheon Films have been selected for international festivals, with Ace (2013) garnering five awards. Her most recent projects are an award-winning historical docushort Writing the Peace, a stage version of her World War 1 short film A Small Dot On The Western Front which she wrote, produced and directed, an experimental short film Spring on the Strand (selected for 3 festivals in the USA), The Penny Dropped (Award of Merit in a US shorts competition), and Home to the Hangers newly completed for the Directors UK Alexa Challenge 2017.

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Posted on May 26, 2016

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