Love & Friendship is a Jane Austen adaptation by the way of Whit Stillman and the results are as witty as one might hope, even if the premise gets stretched pretty thin.
Following the social and romantic trial and tribulations of Lady Susan and her family in 1790’s England, Love & Friendship jumps around from house to house as the Lady tries to find a future for herself by any semi-reasonable means necessary. Leeching off her relatives and using her daughter to try to re-establish her wealthy lifestyle, Lady Susan doesn’t give an F about anyone but herself.
Getting into this film’s plot, which there really is so little, would be a waste of space and to the potential reader of this review, but the enjoyment of the film comes almost entirely between the interactions and conversations among everyone in the picture. Scene after scene is set in some opulent room of British wealth, which the period buffs will enjoy, but you won’t find any set pieces with anything but witty tongues. You have to be able to enjoy Lady Susan’s conniving nature, if you are going to enjoy this film, but if you can get on board with her mischief you will find plenty to enjoy in Love & Friendship.
At only 90 minutes Love & Friendship doesn’t feel short, which is the biggest knock against the film, but even though it feels a little long in the tooth it is never dull. Swooping in just when the film’s premise seems like it is hitting its limits is Tom Bennett, who plays the dimwitted Sir James Martin. Bennett gives a phenomenal comedic performance and is easily one of the best performances of the year, period. He is so lovable and dumb, with just pitch perfect comedic timing. In the hands of the wrong actor a character like this might become unbearable, but Bennett makes you relish every time he comes onto the screen, even makes us feel sorry for the guy by the end.
Kate Beckinsale also deserves to be mentioned as she gives one of the best performances of her career as our lead, Lady Susan, who is just a wicked human being in the politest way possible. Again, like Bennett, the part very easily could have devolved into some nasty and unbearable performance, but she plays her conniving with such confidence and charm no one can really resist her. Stillman also wonderfully layers her character’s worst moves in this social shell game to the fringes so that she isn’t just openly evil to the public, just a bit unbearable.
Xavier Samuel and Emma Greenwell are the romantic heart of the film, and while a predictable resolution it is a cute courtship that is a much needed to counteract Lady Susan’s gamesmanship; even if this courtship is probably all part of her plan. Jenn Murray is also delightfully shrill as a jilted wife of one of Lady Susan’s sexual conquests.
Love & Friendship is enjoyable through and through, with a couple of great performances that are absolutely worth checking out. The film’s dragging might be a product of so many characters to keep track of, even with Stillman’s brilliant character “portrait” intros, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this plays even better on repeat viewings. Stillman is someone I am enjoying more and more with each film I’ve seen from him, as the man has a certain style that takes some getting use to. Those period and Austen fans coming out Love & Friendship this will enjoy it, regardless of Stillman’s style, as I think it breathes some fresh air into a potentially tired genre.