Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Love and Friendship

It was absolutely perfect that Whit Stillman decided to enter the world of Jane Austen.  So appropriate,  you wonder why it didn't happen much sooner.  The writer/director is virtually alone in his dryly witty, literate takes on contemporary society, of London Fog clad wannabes and tortured expatriates alike. Social standing and mores are gently but thoroughly taken to task.  His dialogue is always bitingly insightful and erudite.  This year's LOVE AND FRIENDSHIP is an adaptation of an Austen novella that was written as a series of letters, or epistles, between friends in eighteenth century England.

The widow Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale, possibly never better) has been forbidden from seeing her American friend Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny) by the latter's husband (Stephen Fry), who is much older, and wise to Susan's conniving ways.  Such as living off her relatives and friends as she flits from manor to manor while she attempts to rebuild her lost fortunes.  There is scandal as Susan is cast out of the Manwering estate, where she was rumoured to be having relations with the married Lord of the house.

Susan and Alicia do find places to meet, and the widow confides her devious plans to marry herself and her daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark), off to wealthy men.  One of them is the daft Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett) whose lack of knowledge on a myriad of topics (including Susan's reputation) causes great embarrassment to all within earshot.  Martin is a nice man, congenial, and of course quite well off.  He seems most suitable (in Susan's eyes) for Frederica, who disagrees intently.  The youthful Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel) is another eligible bachelor - the brother of Susan's sister-in-law.  He, on the other hand, is quite privy to the widow's scheming.

Each character in LOVE AND FRIENDSHIP is identified with onscreen titles and a brief description (in cursive of course).  This seems a bit precious and self-aware on Whitman's part but actually works well within the film's tone, its sense of humour.  This is a very funny movie at times, due mainly to Bennett's performance.  Austen's tale is also a bit mean spirited and condescending, but forgiveness is easy with such a wonderfully written screenplay, a reliably handsome production, and some rich characterizations. Beckinsale (and Stillman) really gets her character, one who, even when caught red handed in her mischief, will explain away her wrongdoing with a sort of elegant, verbose denial.

Lady Susan is quite a contemptible character, but infinitely interesting and perhaps delightful in her naughtiness.  For a (somewhat) contemporary parallel, you might recall Joan Collins' character on Dynasty.  In some funny way, that specific persona is right at home in Austen's world of the 1700s.  LOVE AND FRIENDSHIP is a pleasing blend of  Merchant/Ivory and the more timely urban sophistication of such Whitman films as METROPOLITAN and THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO.   With a dash of '80s prime time soap for good measure.

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