Prepare for a mixed review.
I can’t choose whether “Love & Friendship” is the best Jane Austen film I have ever seen, or the best I could ever hope to see. Which is better, the cast’s elegant character work or the charm and wit of writer/director Whit Stillman’s overall control? Is it more dangerous to laugh yourself silly or applaud to the point of bruised palms? Decisions, decisions.
Following many staid and treacly Austen adaptations, this sublime period romp adds a thrilling splash of bemused, acidic humor.
Adapting an incomplete and little-known novella she wrote at the ripe young age of 18, Stillman offers a revised plot and wicked dialogue to show us Austen at her least pious and swooningly romantic. It’s not an Austen satire, but a sharp, good-natured modification showing the narcissism of 21st-century life in 1790s English dress.
Kate Beckinsale, returning from her detour as a supernatural action star in the “Underworld” franchise, plays the part she was born for. As the widow Lady Susan Vernon, she is disarmingly beautiful, cunningly devious and a touch smug about her ability to turn otherwise intelligent men into bumbling buffoons.
That power is in play throughout the story as she aims to create marital entry points into the nobility for her teenage daughter Francesca (Morfydd Clark) and herself. With polite formality and an air of casual nonchalance, she calls at a remote in-law’s country estate, secretly scheming and plotting to continue her social standing. She defends her motivations to Francesca by noting that in the crisis of their reduced circumstances, “we don’t live, we visit.”
Gossip about her scandalous nature is spreading, causing her to protest, “Facts are horrid things.” Still, opportunism has never looked so striking; she could be a seductive wildcat picking at heartstrings with her claws.
Lady Susan shares her inner thoughts with a sly American compatriot played by Chloë Sevigny. The minor chess pieces on her manipulative board are several lords. The older ones tend to disapprove, while the new pups hope to nuzzle close as suitors of either Vernon. With the likes of Stephen Fry in the group, they’re all impressively entertaining.
But the Star of Tomorrow plaque goes to Tom Bennett as the charming, hilariously dense Sir James Martin, introduced in an opening collection of character portraits as “a bit of a rattle,” and it does seem as if this wealthy gentleman’s head is part of the noisemaker in a baby’s crib. He’s delighted to giggles by discovering the novelty vegetable of peas on his dinner plate, can’t exactly recall how many Holy Commandments the Bible contains and turns the regional pronunciation of Churchill into a daffy one-man chitchat about the alternate possibilities.
The film is full of such delightful surprises. It’s edited with perfection, turning little nothings such as the sluggish behavior of a well-bred hound into a killer joke.
Stillman has delivered a nonstop delight to thrill the existing Austen audience and crack up all the rest. He understands the story’s themes well. He explored the lives of young yuppies in love in the 1990s films “Barcelona” and “The Last Days of Disco,” taking us sightseeing through the preppy ecosphere, the world of Ralph Lauren, the WASP establishment sinking and grasping at fading privileges.
Here he has revisited that view in a frothy mix of tribute to the swooning elegance of Austen’s Regency-era romances and a wild spoof. Austen mania has provided an infinitely expanding source of material, but I have never seen it treated better.
I hope that devoted Janeites will excuse my saying so, but I think that for turning the English language into a means of amusement, she has met her equal. Or at least a match made in heaven.