By HANNAH BROWN
What many of the Jane Austen movie adaptations have missed is how funny Austen can be, so it’s refreshing that Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship puts the author’s humor front and center. Based on her early, little-known epistolary novel Lady Susan, the film Love & Friendship (the title comes from another Austen work) captures Austen’s humor and playfulness.In her day, when there were virtually no work options for women, marriage was like a sport for women who would otherwise be sidelined in the game of life, and the heroine of Love & Friendship has an adventurous, competitive spirit. Stillman, who was just a guest at the Jerusalem Film Festival, is the perfect director to lead us through the funnier, livelier side of Austen’s work. He became an overnight sensation on the American indie movie scene with his 1990 film Metropolitan, about a group of upper-class Manhattanite young people home from school on their Christmas vacation. He examined this privileged group from the perspective of an outsider who stumbles his way in. The characters were articulate, funny and bound by the often rigid rules of the tribe into which they had been born, very much like Jane Austen characters.Stillman followed this up with a movie about similar characters abroad, Barcelona (1994), and in the world of New York nightlife, The Last Days of Disco (1998). After falling quiet for a few years, he reemerged in 2011 with Damsels in Distress, a comedy about a college student (Greta Gerwig) determined to bring out the best in everyone, a character who had parallels to the eponymous heroine of Austen’s novel Emma.In Love & Friendship, Stillman reunites Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny, who starred in The Last Days of Disco. Beckinsale plays Lady Susan Vernon, a widow who spent all her husband’s money, buried him, and embarked on a search for rich husbands for herself and her daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark). Flat broke, Susan, whose motto is “One’s plight, they say, is one’s opportunity,” has been having an affair with the hunky, silent Lord Manwaring (Lochlann O’Mearáin). As the movie opens, she is fleeing the wrath of his wife by visiting her brother-in-law, Charles Vernon (Justin Edwards), and his family. Her sister-in-law, Catherine (Emma Greenwell), is on to her, but Catherine’s brother, Reginald (Xavier Samuel), who is just young enough to be attractive, trusting and an inappropriate match for Susan, finds himself smitten. Sevigny plays Alicia, Susan’s American confidant and enabler, who must keep the friendship secret from her own disapproving husband (Stephen Fry).Susan, who is constantly plotting a few steps ahead of everyone else, thinks she has found just the man for her daughter in Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett). But Sir James is too dumb to interest Frederica, and Susan gets some great lines about the ingratitude and incomprehension of children. Sir James, one of the most entertaining movie morons in recent memory, also gets his share of wonderful dialogue, particularly when he is amazed to learn that there are only 10 Commandments, not 12 as he had always thought, and wonders with excitement which rules he will now be allowed to break.Beckinsale, who has never been better than she is in this role, turns out to be a wonderful low-key comic actress as she delivers such lines as, while speaking of Alicia’s disapproving husband, “What a mistake you made in marrying him. Too old to be governable, too young to die.”Stillman has adapted the screenplay into a novel, which is available now from Two Roads Books/John Murray Press. It includes the full text of Austen’s somewhat shorter Lady Susan as well.The movie, filled with the beautiful costumes and country real-estate porn that are de rigueur for a story set in this period, is fast-paced and enjoyable from start to finish. Lady Susan is a charmingly self-centered character, with such a total lack of scruples she brings to mind today’s television anti-heroes, such as Walter White and Don Draper. But there is a generosity of spirit and a lightness of tone that are absent from those small-screen series and a sophistication and intelligence you won’t find in most big-screen offerings.
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