By Noel Vera
Love and Friendship
Directed by Whit Stillman
I REMEMBER one night picking up a copy of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice — waded unenthusiastically through the first 20 or so pages wondering what made the author so appealing, why anyone would want to care about the machinations and intricacies of 18th century English society. Then somehow somewhere along the way I got hooked; finished the book some time in the early morning. That Austen, she can move fast when the mood hits you.
Never mind the surprise at finding Whit Stillman a superb fit for the writer; if anyone bothered to look (including myself) we might have noted the filmmaker’s long-standing admiration for the writer,* both author and filmmaker’s brittle sense of humor, their always precise description of society’s intricate clockwork. Superb fit? Inevitable, when seen through 20/20 hindsight.
Stillman’s latest film Love and Friendship hits the ground running literally as Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) rushes out of one mansion to catch a coach to another. Lady Susan (the title of the source novel**) is what one character describes as “the most accomplished flirt in all of England” and what we on the other hand might more bluntly call a “sexual predator.” She’s pursued one man after another (or rather persuaded them to pursue her), wrecked marriages, pulled apart households; only fitting that our first sight of her is a hasty transition between such households.
I’m always on a lookout for interesting or innovative ways to adapt period literature, to translate sensibilities in time and pacing at variance with our own to the big screen; Stillman in an interview conducted at Rotterdam confided that his approach was inspired by Michael Caine and Steve Martin’s hurly-burly-with-precision approach in the 1988 Dirty Rotten Scoundrels which sounds plenty interesting (Stillman might have also drawn from the original material, David Niven and Marlon Brando in the 1964 Bedtime Story — less slapstick, a tonier tone).
Whatever the stimulus, the end result is a delectable lightly toasted meringue, frothily whipped faintly sweet with crisp crust and creamy interior; in other words enormous fun even if you aren’t fond of the (somewhat) tongue-twisting mind-bending diction of the period.
Anna Rackard and Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh dutifully reproduce setting and costumes (well more than dutifully probably; always thought the characters in Stillman’s films wandered handsome surroundings and were impeccably dressed). Richard Von Oosterhout captures the bright colors of the period clothes and decor (not to mention the earthy greenness of peas) while under the silvery light of overcast English weather. Sophie Corra cuts crisply and sometimes wittily without losing the feel and length of Austen’s dialogue (as edited by Stillman).
The cast is fine, but to pick out a few standouts: Tom Bennett as the dim James Martin, putative fiance to Susan’s daughter, is Stillman’s happy invention and the film’s funniest running gag; every time he makes an entrance you lean forward, hoping to catch the newest thickheadedness to drop from his character’s lips. Morfydd Clark as Frederica, Susan’s daughter, looks every bit the excess baggage Susan considers her to be at first, but evolves to become a worthy adversary to (and almost as clever a manipulator as) her mother. Stephen Fry has a handful of brief scenes involving letters and drawing rooms and Lady Susan being caught red-handed, and makes full use of the little he’s got.
Too much to take in? No worries — Stillman at film’s beginning provides a quick character’s guide complete with titles to introduce the large cast.
Chloe Sevigny as Susan’s best friend Alicia Johnson feels problematic at first — in the midst of all the impeccable accents her broader New York drawl sticks out — but she’s deftly explained away as a result of one of Mr. Johnson’s business ventures in the New World, and her presence gives Mr. Stillman the opportunity for a few jabs at his native country: when told that Alicia (should she continue seeing her friend) might be exiled to Connecticut for the duration of her life, Susan exclaims: “you could be scalped!”
Kate Beckinsale is superb as Susan of course — smart sexy unscrupulous, ravishing in her piled-high hats and deep decolletages and towering cumulonimbus hair, but more interesting than even her performance is the way perception of her character seems to have changed over the years. Where in Austen’s time she was seen as a charming monster of an anti-hero, nowadays we might view her as a strong-willed protofeminist, sure of what she wants and how she wants to get it, and unwilling to give quarter to anyone or anything except on her own terms.
Is this the best adaptation of Austen I’ve seen? I don’t know; I still prefer Amy Heckerling’s Clueless, which transposed Austen to the brighter, shallower, more ADHD milieu of Beverly Hills, 90210 — where the writer’s observations about society and human interaction still managed to sting and wound. Still, this may be one of my favorite translations of Austen to the big screen to date.
* Initially hated — he disliked Northanger Abbey as a Harvard freshman — eventually loved (changed his mind with Sense and Sensibility a few years later); he has since written a novel retelling Lady Susan in the voice of a character made up for the occasion.
** Actually it’s a little confusing: the story is from Lady Susan but the title is from an even earlier parody she wrote, both unpublished.