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Love and Friendship

D: Whit Stillman / 93m

Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Chloë Sevigny, Xavier Samuel, Emma Greenwell, Justin Edwards, Morfydd Clark, Tom Bennett, Jemma Redgrave, James Fleet, Jenn Murray, Stephen Fry

It may seem like an odd corollary, but Whit Stillman’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s posthumously published Lady Susan, and a certain Monty Python sketch involving the Piranha Brothers (Doug and Dinsdale) have something in common. In the Python sketch, Michael Palin as low-level criminal Luigi Vercotti talks about Doug as being the more vicious of the two gang leaders:

“Everyone was terrified of Doug. I’ve seen grown men pull their own heads off rather than see Doug. Even Dinsdale was frightened of Doug.”

“What did he do?”

“He used… sarcasm. He knew all the tricks, dramatic irony, metaphor, pathos, puns, parody, litotes and… satire. He was vicious.”

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You could add mieosis to the list, or rhetoric, or even polemics – they’re all there in Stillman’s screenplay, all in service to one of the year’s funniest movies, and proof (as if it were truly needed) that Jane Austen had a wicked sense of humour, and enjoyed attacking the social mores of her time; no one was safe, high- or lowborn. In transferring Lady Susan to the screen, Stillman has retained the epistolary nature of the novella, allowing the audience to be swept along with the recent widow’s attempts to secure advantageous marriages for both herself and her daughter, Frederica (Clark)… while also brokering an affair between herself and the married Lord Manwaring. In the process, barbs are dispensed with precision, honeyed slanders voiced with mannered simplicity, and insults hurled with joyous abandon. There’s no turn left unstoned by the movie’s end, and nobody who doesn’t find themselves somehow injured by an unkind remark (even if they don’t know they’ve been injured – some remarks pass by so quickly the characters don’t even realise it’s happened).

This is the overwhelming joy of Love & Friendship: the ease with which the characters are disarmed by unexpected, cutting remarks, and the way in which their reactions are to stare in disbelief like rabbits caught in the headlights, trying to fathom just what to say in return – and then the moment is gone and they’re left there, still staring in shock. Stillman includes so many of these moments there’s a danger of his overdoing it, but the range of insults is so varied that everyone’s a winner, and every moment is assured a smile from the viewer. As Lady Susan (Beckinsale) weaves her tangled web of intrigue, she does so with a shrewd cunning that’s completely impressive. She’s the predatory shark in petticoats who cares for no one but herself and her assured future (or her daughter’s assured future, as that will lead to hers as well).

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Watching the movie is like indulging in a massive bowl of whipped cream and citrus lemon sauce, a confection that’s rich and rewarding and a bit of a guilty pleasure. But it shouldn’t be, as Stillman elicits superb performances from his cast, with Beckinsale on particularly fine form as Lady Susan, revelling in her machinations and throwing out carefree lines such as “Facts are horrid things” with an amused detachment that fits the character perfectly. It’s good to see Beckinsale – along with Sevigny, reunited with Stillman after eighteen years – being given such a juicy role after so many bland fantasy outings. Maintaining an equilibrium and a sense of purpose while treating everyone around her – bar her good friend, Mrs Johnson (Sevigny) – with utter contempt, Beckinsale as Lady Susan is a poisonous delight, cunning, devious, and wholeheartedly shameless in her efforts to get what she wants. But there’s also grace and subtlety in her performance, a measured approach to the character and the material that reaps dividends when she’s called upon to be deceitful or just outright lying.

But it’s not just Beckinsale who puts in a fabulous performance. As Lady Susan’s confidant, Mrs Johnson, Sevigny has what looks to be the thankless role of best friend who’s there just so the main character has someone to show off to. But Stillman is too good a director, and Sevigny too good an actress, to let this happen, and even in her scenes with Beckinsale, Sevigny’s quiet attention and marvelling at the deplorable behaviour of Lady Susan’s relatives is too good to be ignored or undervalued. And she’s on even better form when the contents of a letter causes problems both for her and for Lady Susan.

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On the spear side of things, there’s a pitch perfect exercise in buffoonery from Bennett as the idiotic Sir James Martin, whose halting, almost stream of consciousness dialogue is matched by the actor’s use of physical tics and surprised facial expressions; he’s like a child for whom everything is new and endlessly fascinating (he finds peas to be an amazing discovery). There’s a scene where he turns up unexpectedly at the home of Lady Susan’s brother-in-law (Edwards), and spends approximately two minutes waffling horrendously about almost nothing at all, and its one of the funniest things you’ll see this year, a perfect match of physical discomfort and mental truancy.

As befits an adaptation of a novella, the story is very slight, and does boil down to very little at all, but Stillman wisely concentrates on the characters and their idiosyncracies rather than the plot, and there’s reward enough in seeing them adrift – often – in a sea of their own making. It’s a romantic comedy, and a recalcitrant comedy of manners, and a comedy of hilarious misdirection that bubbles with energy and glee at providing so much mischief. Stillman doesn’t make very many movies these days, which is a shame, but let’s hope Love & Friendship is the beginning of a more prolific period in his career because it would be a shame if he spent another five years (the time since his last movie, Damsels in Distress) away from our screens.

Rating: 9/10 – a perfect mix of period drama (with sterling work by costume designer Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh and production designer Anna Rackard), and pin-sharp levity, Love & Friendship is perfectly designed to ensure a good time will be had by all; Stillman interprets Austen with authority, Beckinsale has a great time as the unprincipled Lady Susan, and the viewer is treated to one of the few comedies released this year that doesn’t rely on crass jokes or gross-out humour – and is all the more impressive for it.