A little more than twenty years ago, Whit Stillman and Jane Austen were hot on the filmmaking circuit at the same time. The former was the writer-director behind a pair of very well-regarded and somewhat atypical indie house hits, both of which were distinctive for their refinement and engaging verbosity. The latter, of course, had been dead for a span of years in the triple-digits. She was also enjoying such a surge of screen success that Entertainment Weekly named her, admittedly somewhat tongue-in-cheek, one of the “Entertainers of the Year,” right behind Brad Pitt but ahead of Tom Hanks and Coolio. There’s something fitting about this mild convergence (even my inclination to qualify the connection between the two creators as “mild” feels right). With his interest in social structures and stiffly intelligent characters, Stillman is like a distant echo of Austen. If anything, it’s a wonder it took them this long to properly come together.
Love & Friendship is Stillman’s fifth feature film and the first that was adapted from outside source material. It’s based on an early work by Austen, which was published as Lady Susan, over fifty years after her passing. The film is primarily concerned with Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale), a recently widowed woman navigating the treacherous terrain of late eighteenth century society, relying on the obligated largess of in-laws and acquaintances to get by. She’s also a spectacularly skilled manipulator, nestling devastating, backhanded swipes in cavalcades of complimentary language. Every communication is tactical at its core. This brings the film straight to Stillman’s greatest strength, his precision with dialogue. Individual lines are marvels that beg to be diagrammed on a chalkboard in order to help define passive aggressiveness.
The film also has a considerable asset in Beckinsale, who hasn’t had a role this good since the last time she worked with Stillman. She makes it clear that Lady Susan is operating with layers of cunning, even as she proceeds in a slyly guarded fashion. Beckinsale signals that Lady Susan is constantly thinking on her feet, doubling back to retrofit her own contradictions into perfectly sound logic without betraying so much as an ounce of uncertainty. It’s a lovely, perfectly calibrated performance, its artful elegance only enhanced by the funhouse mirror reflection of Tom Bennett’s spectacular comic work as a verbally bumbling prospective suitor for Lady Susan’s unhappy daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark). Lady Susan slips smoothly through life, while Bennett’s Sir James Martin is constantly crashing aside the decor with his errant elbows. Stillman makes the most of the contrast.
Like many films of its ilk, Love & Friendship can sometimes seem like a mere flutter of a thing, which Stillman perhaps acknowledges with his own cheeky flourishes, led by a decidedly old-fashioned overt introduction of the various players and, most enjoyably, an occasional conceit that sets the words of letters spilling across the screen like opening credits gone awandering. Stillman deploys the attention-getting moments of knowing artifice sparingly, which is undoubtedly wise. Too much of that brand of tomfoolery transforms agreeable whimsy into tiresome gimmickry at the drop of feather-festooned hat. Still, I couldn’t help but long for a little more of it in the stretches when the film settles into a snoozy Masterpiece Theatre groove. Just because the material suits Stillman doesn’t mean it has to be overly comfortable. With any filmmaker prone to crisp control and straightforward clarity, nothing thrills quite like a little rambunctiousness.