Title: Love & Friendship
Country: Ireland, Netherlands, France, USA, UK
Genre: Comedy, Romance, Drama
Director/Writer: Whit Stillman
based on Jane Austen’s novella “LADY SUSAN”
Music: Benjamin Esdraffo
Cinematography: Richard Van Oosterhout
Achieving the high point of commercial success among all Whit Stillman’s films, LOVE & FRIENDSHIP, his fifth feature in 26 years, is an entrancing victory of the sophist and schemer Lady Susan Vernon (Beckinsale), a British upper-rung widow in the end of eighteenth century, who goes to great lengths to secure a well-heeled marriage for her eligible daughter Frederica (Clark) and for herself, if possible.
It is genuinely helpful when Stillman chooses to present each character in successive tableaux in advance with their background info according to their locations, so audience will not easily get lost in the brisk pace of this dialogue-laden comedy. Lady Susan, is a widow with an unsavory reputation, has no estate or fortune of her own, her last resort is to stay with the family of her brother-in-law Charles Vernon (Edwards) in a tedious town named Churchill after causing a scandal with Lord Manwaring (O’Mearáin), “a divinely handsome man” quotes his name card.
But, Lady Susan will never succumb to the status quo, she initiates a growing rapport with Reginald DeCourcy (Samuel), the younger brother of Charles’ biddable wife Catherine (Greenwell), whilst trying to cajole Frederica into marrying an inane parvenu Sir. James Martin (Bennett), a heavenly creature blessed with utter benightedness and sizable fortune, and devoid of any trace of self-consciousness, to the extent of inducing transcendent amazement. But Frederica doesn’t bow to her mother’s consistent coaxing, she thinks she can making a living by teaching, what a callow gal!
Just when the moderately good-looking but (overtly) snooty Reginald falls head over heels for Lady Susan, counter to the warnings of Catherine and their worried parents (Fleet and Redgrave), and as Lady Susan admitted with her confidant, the American lady Alicia (Sevigny), that her motive is merely to take Reginald down a peg or two of his superiority, things swerve to a more dramatic turn when Reginald finds out Lady Susan has never severed the tie with Lord Manwaring at first place, and even being caught red-handed, she can effortlessly turns the tables on Reginald and takes a pre-emptive measure to hang him out to dry by breaking their vow of matrimony, which further pushes him closer to Frederica, who would be a more suitable bride for him in all regards. In the final revelation, Lady Susan takes the advice from Alicia, a new marriage arrangement presents a superbly happy ending to everyone (barring the hysterically shrill Lady Manwaring), who can say a woman cannot have everything?
For inveterate misogynists, the film can hardly be their cuppa, it potently vindicates a woman’s undivided manipulation to get what she wants, and all its male characters are either downright ridiculed or broadly rendered as completely witless and predictable. But under that specific context, a hierarchically patriarchal society, there is not many alternatives available for a lady in her place, love is defenselessly secondary to a secured life, but for a woman as smart as Lady Susan, she can obtain both if given her a chance.
The film marks the reunion of the two leads from Stillman’s THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO (1998), Beckinsale seizes a meaty role which allows her lap up in her native British accent to toy with oration of hyperbole and sophistication, perhaps a Golden Globe nominee is waving at her at last after a 15-year-stint in the Hollywood trying to establish herself as a serious actress since her breakthrough in Michael Bay’s PEARL HARBOR (2001); as for Sevigny, who is patiently engrossing as a woman constantly on the risk of being sent back to Connecticut (even be scalped) by her husband if she keep meeting her ill-famed best friend, her understated presence is a crucial transmitter to impart exposition through all the tangles (a maneuver to counterbalance the source novella’s epistolary structure). The whole cast has done a commendable job, with Bennett as the indisputable cynosure thanks to Stillman’s deliberate frivolousness. One thing seems a bit jarring is the character of Frederica, who is introduced as a rejectee from her school but turns out extremely well-mannered, makes one wonder what possible could she has done to deserve such a punishment other than being a shoddy plot device. Nevertheless, LOVE & FRIENDSHIP is a crisply orchestrated period comedy has no problem of charming the less narrow-minded with a tantalizing 90-minute mind game.