Exceptionally watchable, Whit Stillman’s Love and Friendship is a stirringly funny testament to the cinematic potential of Jane Austen.
There is a rich heritage of Jane Austen adaptations on the both the small and big screen; Emma, Pride and Prejudice, and Sense and Sensibility have seen themselves pillaged time and time again by innumerable screenwriters and playwrights, sometimes with excellent results, others decidedly less so. Lady Susan, however, is one of Austen’s works that appears to have largely escaped popular adaptation. With 2016’s Love and Friendship, director Whit Stillman has made a valiant effort to redress that discrepancy.
Lady Susan was a complete novella that went unpublished in Austen’s lifetime, comprised of 41 letters apparently written by the titular character, describing her efforts to secure husbands for both herself and her eligible daughter. Stillman’s script for Love and Friendship has transformed this irregular structure into a more standard narrative, giving a new voice to the supporting cast of characters while maintaining the period dialogue. Lady Susan herself makes for a joyfully selfish and conniving protagonist, and is played highly effectively by Kate Beckinsale. She has a hilarious and almost robotic ability to manipulate those around her, simultaneously seductive and sympathetic, but always focussed on furthering her own ends.
Beckinsale is backed by an excellent supporting cast; whether their role is to haplessly fall for, or vehemently fight against, Lady Susan’s machinations, each character acts and reacts in a believable way. Both Chloe Sevigny and Stephen Fry fill smaller roles, providing additional star power without encroaching on Beckinsale’s central performance.
The script remains witty and fast moving throughout, resulting in a talky but eminently watchable product. The dialogue has an old-worldly charm that allows it to be as biting and macabre as may be possible within a U-certificate film, while the comic relief of Tom Bennett’s Sir James Martin is never overplayed. Laugh out loud moments were happily common, a testament to the longevity and relatability of Austen’s verse.
The production design and period costuming is similarly excellent, dressing the screen with lavish and somewhat pornographic detail, reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon or, more appropriately, the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice. Despite the film’s relatively limited budget, it never feels cheap or inauthentic. All this is framed within camera work that has a clear but un-showy sense of style, steering clear of the televisual realm that often curses such period adaptations.
Love and Friendship is, above all, a joy to watch. Kate Beckinsale delivers a believable and thoroughly enjoyable performance, portraying Lady Susan as a woman who is easily detestable but never dull. In addition, Stillman’s script retains the core of Austen’s writing while propelling the events along at brisk pace – it’s ninety-two-minute runtime provides plenty of breathing room for both the characters and their picturesque surroundings. With Love and Friendship, Whit Stillman has ejected life and humour into the period drama, providing an energising take on one of Austen’s lesser known works.