Director: Whit Stillman
Runtime: 95 minutes
Frilly period romances have faded on the American arthouse circuit in recent years, but if you've really been missing them, fear not: Whit Stillman's Love & Friendship is exactly what you need. And if you've never taken a liking to adaptations of Jane Austen (or similar work) but find yourself dragged along to Love & Friendship, you don't have anything to worry about either. Indie darling Stillman has crafted an Austen adaptation for just about everyone. Mining the author's feather-light English wit without ever softening any edges, Stillman's film has broad appeal without watering anything down.
Taken from a lesser known Austen work (the novella "Lady Susan"), Stillman's comedy of manners is, above all else, a stellar showcase for actress Kate Beckinsdale. Beckinsdale is part of a group of actors who approached the studio A-list without ever finding the right role to keep them up there (see also: Colin Farrell). After a while, it was hard to know if Beckinsdale had any significant acting capability, or was simply trapped by poor material. Liberated from the studio system and gifted with Stillman's wonderfully tart script, Beckinsdale delivers the sort of star-making performance that makes you realize how badly Hollywood failed her.
The role of Lady Susan Vernon is instantly recognizable as an Austen heroine, but with an extra kick. She has the wit of Elizabeth Bennett and Emma Woodhouse (and the latter's penchant for meddling), but with the delightful benefit of being a purely comedic character. Her manipulations are self-serving, but they aren't evil, and so her relatively easy journey doesn't force the viewer to empathize with an outright villain. It's a fabulously juicy, smart role, and Beckinsdale is a thrill to watch as she inhabits the character and silkily delivers dialogue with a rapidity that would leave Aaron Sorkin flummoxed.
As is common in good Austen adaptations, it's not the particulars of the plot that matter so much as the handling of tone and line delivery. All the more reason why Stillman, whose films rely heavily on informative and intelligent dialogue, is such a perfect fit for his several roles behind the camera (director, writer, producer). While the film's early scenes are a touch flat (simultaneously setting things up while also trying to rev the comedic engine), it picks up considerably once Beckinsdale first gets to cut loose as she describes her relationship to her valet (they're friends, so paying her would be obscene, you see).
The other faces that fill out the cast are often left playing straight men to Beckinsdale's imposing tower of brown curls, but they are reliably appealing. Some of them fall for Susan, and others, like her sister-in-law (Emma Greenwell, of Hulu's The Path) remain friendly while not buying into her act. American ex-pat Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny) comes closest to an audience surrogate, admiring and tacitly endorsing Susan's shenanigans from a distance.
There is one member of the supporting cast who truly stands out, and he is a scene-stealer in every sense of the word. As Sir James Martin, daffy would-be suitor to Susan's daughter, Tom Bennett owns every moment he appears on screen. Martin represents the film's comedy at its broadest, but it works in perfect sync with the more high-minded verbal sparring. His first appearance, during which he discusses his difficulty in finding the home of Susan's in-laws, is one of the funniest character introductions in recent memory. He's a cheerfully ignorant flaming disaster of human being, so stunningly oblivious that he could be a VEEP character sent back in time. The only thing wrong with Bennett/Martin is that he doesn't appear nearly enough.
Then again, he's not the main draw here. That, of course, is Beckinsdale, who carries this airy, sharp-tongued delight without missing a beat. Love & Friendship has the trappings of an empty period rom-com, but Stillman refuses to give into the temptation to fetishize the time period. There are a few striking gowns, but they're never given priority over what's going on with his characters. The social satire is not extreme, and Stillman never knocks his privileged characters off of their pedestal. Instead, with quick wit and a light tone, he subtly, stealthily nudges them toward the edge.