Whit Stillman adapting Jane Austen feels as appropriate as it does redundant. His droll and talky comedies, fixed as they are on the manners, behaviors and energetic tête-à-têtes of their characters, often channel Austen outright. There’s even a scene in his great Metropolitan where the characters have a lengthy debate about the author, discussing the protagonist of Mansfield Park and her undervalued place among notable lead characters of pre-Victorian literature. Stillman seems to make a similar argument with his new film, Love & Friendship, loosely adapted from Austen’s rarely discussed book Lady Susan, a short and largely unheralded epistolary novel that the director turns into a sweeping and uproariously funny character piece. The source material holds a minor place in Austen’s canon, but Stillman opens it up to reveal a wealth of humor and delicious social satire, resulting in a stylistic fusion that feels at once familiar and revelatory.

Austen wrote Lady Susan very early in her career, but it wasn’t published until nearly a century after her death, a notion Love & Friendship, which takes its title from an unrelated Austen story, references when mentioning the source material as “unfinished.” Not only does Stillman take it upon himself to finish the story, he also adapts it with a free hand by abandoning the novel’s epistolary structure and giving characters and events briefly described in the book a life of their own. Janeites may quibble with his artistic license, but the director’s unique sense of language and characterization and wise aversion to plot gives room to Austen’s spirit. Lady Susan doesn’t have much in the way of story, but Stillman doesn’t invent one for Love & Friendship. He specializes in wrapping loose circumstances around vivid, brilliantly realized characters. The plot here mostly hinges on the whims of the dastardly Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale, excellent) as she politely terrorizes her way through high society in 18th century England. Stillman simply follows her path of destruction with joy and curiosity.

Lady Susan is introduced wearing black from head-to-toe, and though it’s probably because of her newly widowed status, it’s also a good indication of her attitude toward the conventions and customs of the day. She’s something of a rogue agent, all cynicism and spite for her surroundings. Her only confidant is the similarly scheming American expat Alicia Johnson (Chloë Sevigny), whose husband, Mr. Johnson (Stephen Fry), has prohibited her from seeing due to her unfavorable reputation. Thus, the two gossip and plot in secret, and it’s under the discreet cover of a horse-drawn carriage, one of the many regal spaces that provide Lady Susan a setting for duplicity, where the widow divulges her plan to secure her financial future by seducing and marrying Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel), the handsome younger brother of her late husband’s sister, Catherine (Emma Greenwell). Fearing Reginald will instead fall for her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark), Lady Susan encourages her to pursue the dimwitted Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett) instead. With grace and charm, she maliciously throws an entire family out of whack.

Stillman honors the decorum and manners of his milieu, but like Lady Susan, he’s just as delighted to mock and manipulate it. He approaches Austen’s world with just the right amount of scorn and tongue-in-cheek humor, often pausing in the middle of a scene to introduce his characters with name cards and sarcastic descriptions. He also has Catherine’s parents (Jemma Redgrave and James Fleet) read one of her letters in the same epistolary style as the book, a task they almost immediately abandon for being too tedious. Stillman plays with the characters—or, more accurately, the character types—in a way that suggests they’re at least somewhat aware of their own absurdity, and Lady Jane is the only one who seems all right with it. When she makes straight-faced proclamations like “Facts are horrid things” or regales her counterparts with Bible stories she seems to deliberately misinterpret, the effect is twofold: she’s toying with her circumstances and winking at the audience, ensuring a rich and derisive mood that skirts toward parody but never crosses the line.

Stillman’s camera, as it is wont to do, follows his characters in graceful tracking shots as they walk and talk in elegant mansions and sloping countryside pastures, and the fruits of his elegant production design are on full display. This is the most ornate film of the director’s career, complete with precise period details in the form of Eimer Ní Mhaoldomhnaigh’s costuming and Anna Rackard’s complex set design. But the real pleasure of Love & Friendship, like any Stillman film, is luxuriating in the comedy and methodology of his language and watching his characters use words in unique and meaningful (if occasionally beguiling) ways. There’s a reason a film like Metropolitan could easily fit within the world of 18th century British aristocracy. With Austen as a guidepost, Stillman shows us how conversations and interactions provide the building blocks for human behavior, regardless of time, place or literary framework.

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