Monday, May 09, 2016

Love & Friendship: Whit Stillman Punches Up Jane Austen

When tackling Jane Austen’s unfinished early novel Lady Susan, Whit Stillman stripped away the epistolary structure, but the characters’ desire to dish remains as strong as ever. In ostensibly polite London society, nobody is a bigger cause and purveyor of gossip than Lady Susan Vernon. Her scandals will be inhaled and savored in Stillman’s Love & Friendship (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Lady Susan and her long-suffering daughter Frederica have just been evicted by their hosts, Lord and Lady Manwaring for reasons we can quickly deduce. It is fair to say Lord Manwaring is sorry to see her go, but go she must. The Vernons temporarily find shelter with Lady Susan’s closest friend Alicia Johnson, a former American Loyalist. Of course, her fuddy-duddy husband does not approve of such a wicked woman, so she arranges a long term residency for them in Churchill, the estate of her good natured brother-in-law, Charles Vernon and his rightfully wary wife Catherine (of the prominent DeCourcy family).

True to form, Lady Susan immediately vindicates her suspicions by bedazzling her highly eligible younger brother Reginald. Although he fancies himself a worldly fellow, he is no match for Vernon’s charms. Simultaneously, Lady Susan doggedly pursues a match for Frederica with the Vernon-DeCourcys’ neighbor, the ridiculously wealthy and downright ridiculous Sir James Martin. Such a prospect alarms Frederica’s hosts, igniting a battle of wits and manners.

Frankly, you might want to jot down some notes to keep the large cast of characters straight, but it hardly matters. Stillman’s dialogue is so deliciously witty and cutting, it is always a pleasure to hear and it usually reveals Lady Susan’s attitudes towards her respective conversation partners in spades. Late Eighteenth Century England might have been a man’s world, but they are completely out-classed by the infinitely cannier women, with the constantly scheming Lady Susan standing in a class by itself.

This is indeed Lady Susan’s story and what a role it is. Fortunately, Kate Beckinsale plays it to the hilt, luxuriating in every caustic barb and seductive glance. Finally, she lives up to the promise of her 1990s work, in such films as Much Ado About Nothing, Cold Comfort Farm, and Stillman Last Days of Disco. Where has she been for the last eighteen years, besides Stonehearst Asylum, Pearl Harbor, and the Underworld franchise? It is good to have her back, commanding the screen and all the silly men around her as such a flamboyant but razor sharp character.

Most everyone wilts next to Beckinsale’s Lady Susan, but not Tom Bennett, who remains defiantly chipper as the utterly clueless Sir James. He raises upper class buffoonery to a high art form. Wisely, Chloë Sevigny opts for the understated approach as Johnson, the American Tory, quietly tossing in sly gibes to complement Beckinsale’s Bette Davis-like turn.

Arguably, if ever there was a modern American Tory, it would be Whit Stillman. Love & Friendship might be his first period piece (a quite a lovely production it is), but the droll humor and keen eye for social dynamics can be traced throughout his work. Frankly, audiences with certain expectations for literary adaptations might not realize how much fun this film is, even though no early Nineteenth Century novelist is more commercial today than Jane Austen. It is one of the funniest, classiest, most salacious films of the year. Very highly recommended, Love & Friendship opens this Friday (5/13) in New York, at the Paris Theater uptown and the Angelika Film Center downtown.