Kate Beckinsale made her film debut in Kenneth Branagh’s broad-as-a-barn Much Ado About Nothing, in which she projected quiet good sense as Hero. The problem with being a British actor is that you remain a British actor, cast as if by edict in adaptations of classics: Emma, The Golden Bowl, Cold Comfort Farm followed. For some reason she paid attention to Ben Affleck in Pearl Harbor, and she made me nostalgic for Sharon Stone when she played the villain in the “reboot” of Total Recall. With the exception of the little seen pleasure Cold Comfort Farm and as the girl who’s rarin’ to go sexually in Laurel Canyon, Beckinsale made little impression beyond teeth and diction. She created the impression of powers in reserve, of strengths suppressed. In Love & Friendship, she plays Lady Susan, a widow with no prospects but an acerbic manner, an available daughter, and considerable flirtation powers. She is a vinegary delight in her best film performance.
I’m also tempted to call Love & Friendship the best film Whit Stillman has made if Damsels in Distress and Metropolitan didn’t exist. But so sharply etched and well paced is Love & Friendship that it represents the apex of the director’s preoccupation with the way in which irony and persiflage conspire to peak behind the surfaces they’ve already constructed. Not to tear them down, however. Whether he sets his films in discos or a country house in the 1790s, Stillman understands the value of these surfaces.
Giving kinetic energy to Jane Austen’s epistolary novella is one of the pleasures of this adaptation. When the film opens, Lady Susan Vernon leaves the Langford cottage of the Manwarings, to the accompaniment of Lady Manwaring’s tears. What drove them out the audience will learn soon enough. Lady Susan and her American friend Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny) find refuge at her brother in law’s, a squire named Charles Vernon (Justin Edwards) as thick as a tick and given to ponderously quoting the likes of Rousseau (the specter of two recent revolutions haunts the picture). His wife Catherine (Emma Greenwell) doesn’t trust Lady Susan, especially when she sets her sights on Catherine’s brother Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuels). He of course stands to inherit a quite a bit of money; that he’s also rather handsome is a bonus. In short, marriage to Reginald would end Lady Susan’s peripatetic ways. “We don’t live – we visit,” she says during one moment of crisis.
Matters look safe until Lady Susan’s boring daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark in dreadful curls) arrives at the Vernons’, having fled from a purgatorial boarding school. A girl closer to Reginald’s age and without the taint of her mother’s reputation reassures Catherine and her parents the DeCourcys, who also take a liking to that dullness and her singing. Sensing disaster, Lady Susan summons Sir James (Tom Bennett) to run interference on Frederica. If Austen’s novella were better known Sir James would be considered the stupidest character in English literature: he insists there are Twelve Commandments, calls the district in which the Vernon home is located “Church Hill,” and considers a plateful of peas as the most delightful of God’s creations (“tiny green balls!”). Stillman lets these scenes play at length, small masterpieces in the comedy of embarrassment. As the Vernons catch on to Lady Susan’s perfidy, the good woman’s schemes become subtler and more brazen – a paradox whose logic looks inexorable when her opponents realize she’s concealing her motives in plain sight; no one, the men least of all, wants to believe in the duplicity of women. “Facts are horrid things,” Lady Susan explains.
A filmmaker who began his career regarding the camera as one would a poisonous snake in the corner, Stillman has learned what to do with the possibilities of space. His compositions track people interacting with backgrounds instead of photographing them against decor. To keep his film at a brisk ninety-one minutes he eschews conventional exposition: iris eye lenses and subtitled introductions do just as well, stressing the project’s artifice. Richard van Oosterhout’s images are precise without lapsing into Merchant Ivory’s static, stolid prettiness. Whit Stillman adapting a Jane Austen novel is like Bryan Ferry covering Dylan: on first glance a calculated move, the reek of complacency unavoidable until the right vehicle coaxes nuances from a lifetime of study. Avoiding the expected thing like Mansfield Park frees Stillman to shape a work of juvenilia to his own sensibilities (maybe Stillman agreed with Metropolitan‘s Tom Townsend after all: “A notoriously bad book”). The character of Alicia, for example, he Americanizes, possibly for Sevigny’s benefit, possibly to write original zingers about the horrors of living in America (Alicia’s husband she describes as “too old to be agreeable, and too young to die”).
But Lady Susan is Love & Friendship‘s plume, the only character on the make in Austen’s fiction who’s a free agent and, in Stillman’s rendering, a figure to treasure, not pity – the most significant alteration of Austen. “I am done submitting my will to the caprices of others,” she remarks, and to a remarkable degree she keeps her word. Love & Friendship shows how a woman can find self-satisfaction within the strictures of a society that offered only a handful of roles: wife, widow, old maid, and governess, the last inspiring chills every time Lady Susan hears about Frederica’s education. More than up to the task, Beckinsale shows a facility of gesture that earns Stillman’s closeups; Lady Susan has mastered the rules because the rules have mastered Catherine, Alice, and her own daughter. She will not allow herself to be crushed.
In a recent post, Richard Brody wrote that the conservatism manifesting itself in a Whit Stillman film shows:
the ongoing work, by society’s most daringly creative and appetitive members, to quietly but decisively overthrow its elements of misrule and to have a hell of a good time in the process—and, as a result, leave a trail of mercurial beauty that others will then imitate to create what is widely known as fashion and is gathered up under the name of style.
“Style” carries too much weight. As a “mode of irony” Lady Susan’s style assures her navigation through a hazardous landscape: by reveling in frivolity she banalizes her in-laws and daughter’s codes of conduct. On the other hand, for Barcelona‘s Fred Boynton and Metropolitan‘s Nick Smith style is the weapon of a cornered animal, the recourse of the powerless. Aware that a culture less amenable to their attitudes is encroaching on them, they realize their irony offends no one; it’s a reactionary tool, a reminder of what they’ve lost. But at the end of Love & Friendship Lady Susan can smile at what she’s gained.