Love and Friendship (PG)
Rating: 4 / 5
Successfully transferring the wit and style of Jane Austen’s novels to the big screen is a tricky business but the latest Austen film adaptation, Love and Friendship, hits its mark.
Writer/director Whit Stillman faced the challenge of completing the unfinished Austen novella Lady Susan and has done a fine job.
Unlike many Austen novels, our leading character is more anti-hero than hero. Kate Beckinsale brings style and panache to Lady Susan, described in the film as ‘the most accomplished flirt in all England’.
To that undoubted truth, add the words amoral, self-deluding and always out for the main chance. As a mother she makes Lucrezia Borgia look a better option, but her machinations are always clothed in sweet words, apparent generosity—and have a sting in the tail.
Lady Susan needs to quit London to allow salacious rumours of her dalliances subside, so she heads for the palatial home of her brother and sister-in-law, Charles (Justin Edwards) and Catherine (Emma Greenwell). While there, she makes plans to marry off her sweet daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) to a cheerful aristocratic twit, Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett).
Also staying with the Vernons are Catherine’s brother Reginald Decourcy (Xavier Samuel) who soon falls under the spell of Lady Susan’s charm and, unlike his sister and her parents (Jemma Redgrave and James Fleet), can’t see though Lady Susan’s charms to her heart of pure steel.
Completing the picture are Lady Susan’s London-based bosom friend, American Alicia Johnson (Chloë Sevigny) and her husband, ‘the respectable Mr Johnson’ (Stephen Fry).
Minor characters Lord and Lady Mainwaring make an appearance, with the former becoming an integral part of the plot’s denouement.
What marks this Austen film out from many others is the sheer bite of the wit, as we gasp at what comes out of Lady Susan’s mouth.
In the film’s conclusion, everybody wins, and Lady Susan manages to have her cake and eat it too. Thankfully, her polar opposite daughter, the charming Frederica, finds true love and avoids her mother’s manipulative plans for her happiness.
Whitman has directed Love and Friendship with a light but firm touch, and allows Austen’s biting wit and acute observation of human nature to shine through. It is beautifully cast, with a knock-out performance from Kate Beckinsale in the lead role, and a most impressive characterisation from 31-year-old Victorian-born, Adelaide-raised Xavier Samuel. Chloë Sevigny’s Mrs Johnson is well drawn, and Stephen Fry impresses in his cameo role. In the smaller roles as the Vernon parents, it was a true joy to watch and hear veteran actors Jemma Redgrave (from the famous Redgrave acting dynasty) and James Fleet, who has grown a couple of decades older since his days as daffy Hugo in The Vicar of Dibley.
Love and Friendship will have you laughing and gasping in equal measure. With its fine wit and elegant language, it’s a delight for any Austen fan—and anyone else who enjoys a well-crafted film with beautiful locations and costumes.
Highlight: excellent script and fine performances
Red Flag: mild adult concepts