Whit Stillman’s “Love & Friendship” is compact, modestly budgeted, sublimely acted and almost completely terrific. It’ll likely disorient the average Jane Austen fanatic, which is nice, too.
The writer-director of “Metropolitan,” “Barcelona,” “The Last Days of Disco” and “Damsels in Distress” has adapted Jane Austen’s early novella “Lady Susan,” retitling it after an even more obscure story from Austen’s teenage years. The results remind us that a lot of what we associate with Austen comes from the creamier, swoonier film versions of her best-known works, “Pride and Prejudice” and “Sense and Sensibility” among them.
This one’s different. While future Austen protagonists are scarcely less duplicitous, their virtue, charm and moral rightness humanize the elaborate romantic stratagems afoot. Lady Susan spits in the eye of these future Austen poster girls. Her maneuvers conceal not one but two love affairs being conducted behind variously well-clothed backs. She’s a creature of self-interest from tip to toe, yet everything works out nicely for nearly everyone around her, almost by accident.
Written in the 1790s as a novella of letters (or “epistolary intercourse,” as Austen phrased it in her story’s conclusion), “Lady Susan” owes as much to “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” from a few years earlier as it does to the Austen favorites of the early 19th century. Recently widowed and penniless, Lady Susan is played by Kate Beckinsale, with fabulously assured technique. Crashing at the country house of her in-laws, the sly opportunist Lady Susan sets her sights initially on her eligible brother-in-law, the younger, diffident, dashing Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel).
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But there are other concerns, all of which Lady Susan confides to her friend and ally, Mrs. Johnson (Chloe Sevigny, somewhat overmatched by the material). Lady Susan has a daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark), recently escaped from a distant boarding school for which her mother hasn’t paid the bills. Might Reginald be tempted by Frederica? In order to derail such a threat to her own plans, Lady Susan engineers the arrival of a second, eligible gentleman of means to the Churchill country estate: Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), a fop of the first order. Perhaps this ninny, who prattles on about “the 12 Commandments” and comports himself like Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy after too much laughing gas, will do the job. “How delightful it will be to humble the pride of these pompous DeCourcys,” Beckinsale purrs at one point.
That’s enough plot, though there are many more entanglements. Stillman does so much right in his adaptation, beginning with the waggish on-screen character introductions, in which the actors strike a pose, in a soft-focus iris shot, and we’re shown their names and chief traits. Sir James, for example, is “a bit of a ‘Rattle.’ ” And how! In his first big scene, which comes about one-third of the way through this 92-minute picture, Bennett does more with verbal hesitations, precisely timed chuckles and thick-headed rejoinders than most actors can do in a lifetime of comic roles. It’s the funniest performance I’ve ever seen in an Austen movie, and the funniest I’ve ever seen in a Stillman movie.
Now and then you may struggle to sort through the stakes and terms of the various relationships. And if you’re looking for a swell of profound human emotion, you’re in the wrong neighborhood of Austen. “Love & Friendship” respects the rules of the game Lady Susan plays, as it respects the period in terms of design (beautiful work, from everyone) and tone. But the dialogue feels fresh and natural. Beckinsale glides through like a woman with a supreme sense of direction, even though her moral compass in the eyes of others is lacking.
In Stillman’s “Metropolitan,” Austen came up for a brief discussion among one of the 1990-era debutantes and an eligible young man, the latter dismissing Austen’s “Mansfield Park” as being “ridiculous from today’s perspective.” The joke was on them: In much of Stillman’s work, the cadence, structural integrity and formal, rather forlorn air of his dialogue sounds more Georgian or Regency era than late 20th century. “Love & Friendship” flips the script. It’s securely in its proper time and place, but this is an unusual side of Austen, cooler and more nakedly cunning. It feels very modern indeed.
Love & Friendship
Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Xavier Samuel, Chloe Sevigny, Morfydd Clark, Tom Bennett
Director: Whit Stillman
Rated PG (for some thematic elements)