love and friendship

Love & Friendship

MPAA Rating: PG | Rating: ★★★★
Release year: 2016
Genre: Comedy, Romance Director: Whit Stillman

Whit Stillman was meant to make a Jane Austen adaptation. His previous films (Metropolitan, The Last Days of Disco) have been period pieces focused on the ennui and romance of attractive upper-class people, particularly women. His dialogue is full of wit and intellect, even when dealing with issues of friendship, sexuality, religion, and vocation. Stillman’s film move at a slow, even pace, and are mostly conversational–it’s often simply watching people talk.

Love & Friendship is not your typical Austen story, nor is it typical Stillman. Yet the two writers/artists complement each other wonderfully in such a partnership. Yes, the film is about British aristocracy and social status climbing. Yes, it features an intelligent and bold female protagonist. Yes, it’s romantic, witty, and charming. Still, there is something altogether unique about it–it’s both more cynical and more humorous than previous Austen stories I’ve seen, and more lively than previous Stillman. The source material is an epistolary novella centered on Lady Susan, a scheming youngish widow in search of a husband for herself and her daughter, Frederica. A perfect mixture of cleverness and bitterness, Love & Friendship is one of the more delightful and hilarious films of the year.

The film centers on Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale) and her plot to secure a husband in Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel), a younger, handsome man and a relative to Susan’s late husband. Beckinsale is ferocious and funny as the single-minded Susan, a woman who has bold self-confidence while also lacking in self-awareness. She confesses her manipulations of the DeCourcy family to her American friend, Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny), with the utmost glee and lack of remorse. She cares little for her daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark), and cares even less for the silly suitor she attempts to hoist upon her daughter, Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett). Lady Susan could perhaps find an equal in House of Cards‘ Frank Underwood–their skills in the coercion of others is unparalleled.

While most of the film’s attention is on Lady Susan, the stand-out performance for me is from Tom Bennett as James Martin, a perfect incarnation of dopey naivety and awkwardness. His over-long introduction to the DeCourcy family is the most I’ve laughed in theaters all year. He is completely sincere and never annoying, despite being cringe-worthy in his lack of social propriety. In one moment, he is explaining the need for the Twelve Commandments (not Ten); in another, he shares his reasoning why men can be philandering and women cannot due to their biology. His opinions are both offensive and ill-informed, but he gladly shares them anyway. He and Lady Susan may be more alike than either realize in their over-confidence and lack of self-awareness–neither are behaving appropriately, and neither really seem to care or notice.

For instance, Lady Susan and Sir James get a few details wrong about the Ten Commandments. I’ve noted James’ understanding of the Twelve Commandments (and how we don’t really need them all anyway, because we *already know* that murder and lying are wrong). Lady Susan cites the Bible a few times in her manipulations, drawing on the wisdom of Solomon at one moment, and explaining the importance of the Fourth Commandment in another, how we are to “honor our father and our mother.” As a theology nerd, I wondered what she meant, as the Fourth Commandment is the keeping of the Sabbath. Maybe just an oversight in the script, I thought. So I was delighted when a later conversation between Frederica and a curate examines the numbering of the Ten Commandments–the Catholic vs. the Protestant versions–and the curate gives a wonderful exhortation on the nature of truth, beauty, and goodness. Both scenes are so subtle yet invaluable, as they reveal a great deal about the difference between Frederica and Lady Susan. Where the former chooses to seek out the wisdom of the church and live a quiet and honorable life, the later abuses the Biblical text for her own advantage or simply doesn’t even comprehend its meaning, despite her prideful posturing about her own dignity. One knows how much she doesn’t know; the other simply doesn’t know, and doesn’t care.

Religion, marriage, friendship, romance–they’re all addressed in Love & Friendship with a level of depth and concern, along with a good dose of humor. It’s a heady and talky film, in the delightful manner of a late-night conversation with friends over a bottle of wine. Like I said, this is a cynical, even bitter, film in many of its conclusions. Yet it’s not without hope. While Lady Susan and Sir James Martin demand much of our attention (and demand is the right word), it’s Reginald and Frederica who also make an impression with their teachability and integrity. The former would be fun at a lively dinner party, but the latter would be people I’d like to build a friendship with over time.

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