Friday, 18 August 2017

Love and Friendship (2016)

Kate Beckinsale in a true star turn in Whit Stillman's brilliant Love and Friendship

Director: Whit Stillman
Cast: Kate Beckinsale (Lady Susan Vernon), Chloë Sevigny (Alicia Johnson), Xavier Samuel (Reginald DeCourcy), Emma Greenwell (Catherine Vernon), Morfydd Clark (Frederica Vernon), James Fleet (Sir Reginald DeCourcy), Jemma Redgrave (Lady DeCourcy), Tom Bennett (Sir James Martin), Justin Edwards (Charles Vernon), Stephen Fry (Mr Johnson)

Films based on Jane Austen are hardly a new thing. There have been dozens of productions on film and television of Austen’s biggest hitters (P&P, S&S, Emma…). What a delight therefore to get an Austen adaptation that takes a very different approach and with material much less familiar. Stillman has even renamed the source material (Lady Susan) with the title from another piece of Austen ephemera, making it playfully fit into the famous X & Y titles.

Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) is notorious throughout society as its most outrageous flirt.  After a failed affair with Lord Manwaring, she retreats to the country home of her late husband’s brother Charles (Justin Edwards). There she soon ensnares Charles’ brother-in-law Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel) into an understanding, while simultaneously promoting the marriage of her reluctant daughter Frederica (Mrfydd Clark) to the wealthy bumbler Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett). Naturally there is outrage left and right.

Watching this film the first question that springs to mind is what has Kate Beckinsale been doing her whole career? Clearly on the basis of this been wasting her talents in umpteen Underworld movies. This film plays to all her strengths: her sophistication, elegance, the intelligence and sharpness she can convey in dialogue, mixed in with a distant quality she has. She’s absolutely on top of her game her as the aloof, completely selfish and manipulative Lady Susan, and bitingly funny. Her A-list status translates perfectly into a cast of largely unknowns: just as she would in real life, she seems to glide amongst the other characters in the film like some demi-god descended from the stars.

Beckinsale is one of the brightest stars in this terrifically dry and witty adaption by Whit Stillman of a little known Jane Austen work (I confess I’d never heard of it before!). The film has a frosty tongue and a sharply observant eye, and delights in the absurdities and eccentricities of the Austen upper middle classes as much as it does the ruthless bitchiness and selfish back-biting of the marriage game. It’s the perfect film to remind everyone that there is so much more to Austen than the lazily inaccurate perception of love and romantic clinches in the rain. Stillman really brings to the forefront her accurate understanding of people, and her sharp satirical eye.

The film fairly canters along – sometimes with such haste that the intricacies of who is related to who and how are a little lost, despite some witty freeze-frames that introduce each character like calling cards – and it’s often blisteringly funny. It has a brilliant mixture of verbal put-downs and catty asides (often delivered with a cool sharpness). The film is not afraid to mix this with some near slapstick absurdity, particularly from an exceptional Tom Bennett whose over-eager, nervously talkative, endearingly naïve Sir James threatens to steal the whole movie. His introductory monologue on the confusion between “Churchill” and “Church Hill” is a show-stopping laugh riot. It all serves to create a wonderfully arch and funny dive into Austenland.

There is a fantastic self-awareness around the whole film which Stillman manages to wear very lightly. It’s a very faithful immersion in Austen’s style and humour, but also leans on the wall of gentle humour at the conventions of lesser costume dramas. It’s a hugely difficult line to walk, but the film never staggers or slackens. It stays tight, taut and the story grows with a warmth and reality while Stillman continues to almost tease the source material. 

The final resolution of events manages to feel both surprising and strangely inevitable. It’s a perfect summation for a film that is simply marvellous, brilliantly performed and frequently laugh-out-loud funny. Lady Susan is in many ways deplorable, but Stillman avoids all temptation to try and redeem her or to make her into some sort of genuine heroine (“Facts are horrid things” she observes after another accurate condemnation). Stillman expands the implications of Austen’s text to more than hint at secrets behind her final marriage.

Love and Friendship is a terrific film, the best Austen adaptation on screen since Emma Thompson’s virtuoso Sense and Sensibility. It also has the best work of her entire career from Kate Beckinsale, giving the kind of performance which makes you re-evaluate all your impressions of her. Every single moment of the film has a rich emotional depth mixed with hilarity. It’s not just a wonderful costume drama, it’s a wonderful film.

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