I come to you this week as a Whit Stillman fan. There may not be that many of us, but our passion for his sophisticated comedies of manners runs deep. You can spot us rather easily, as we tend to be middle-to-upper-class and aware of how absurdly overeducated we are. If movie geeks are like oenophiles, we Stillman fans are like the wine snobs who piss off even the other wine snobs by talking nonstop about Sauternes. Maybe that’s because we know we’re rowing against the tide. In a time when Judd Apatow’s exuberant raunch dominates American comedy, Stillman’s insistence on elegance and refinement is defiantly out of vogue. Ah, but for those of us who’ve acquired the taste, the pleasures of his movies are sweet indeed.
That applies to Love & Friendship, the first outright Jane Austen adaptation by this uniquely Jane Austen-obsessed filmmaker, which expands to Tarrant County this week. He adapted it from her unpublished novelette Lady Susan, the title of which refers to Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale), a widow and a mother, unlike most other Austen heroines. Impoverished partly by her own reckless spending, she has landed at the estate belonging to her brother-in-law and his wife (Justin Edwards and Emma Greenwell), keenly aware that she’s financially dependent on her relatives’ charity. To remedy this, she determines to marry her sister-in-law’s handsome, rich, young brother Reginald (Xavier Samuel). Like Emma Woodhouse — or Cher Horowitz, if you prefer — Lady Susan is a brilliant woman who doesn’t see what’s right in front of her, namely that he’d be a much better match for her wallflower of a teenage daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark). Susan’s too busy trying to fix up Frederica with Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), who appeals to Lady Susan as a potential son-in-law precisely because he’s a rich buffoon. Obstinately, the girl doesn’t want a husband who’s so soul-crushingly stupid that he thinks the Bible has 12 commandments.
While Beckinsale has built a career playing action heroines and winsome romantic leads, she does nothing so well as portraying scheming, narcissistic know-it-alls like Lady Susan. After all, she gave her greatest-ever performance 18 years ago as a rather similar character in Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco. (Her co-star from that movie, Chloë Sevigny, shows up here as Lady Susan’s American friend and co-conspirator.) Negotiating Stillman’s rococo dialogue with enviable ease, Beckinsale gives a performance that’s as exhausting as it is remarkably dexterous. Lady Susan is infuriating in her ability to justify whatever she wants to do and you want all her romantic plans to fail, but Beckinsale nevertheless makes her into delightful company and shows you why people keep putting up with her.
Great as she is here, the exquisite writing is an even bigger attraction. No screenwriter in history has ever come as close as Stillman to duplicating Jane Austen’s coruscating satirical wit. “True, I’ve always detested her, and before her marriage to Charles, I went to great lengths to prevent it,” Susan says of her sister-in-law. “Still, it shows an illiberal spirit to resent my plans, especially when they did not succeed.” Most of the bon mots come from Susan, but Edwards fires off some great lines as a country lord who’s cleverer than he lets on, and a curate (Conor MacNeill) who seems scarcely older than Frederica gives her spiritual advice about our duty to goodness, truth, and beauty — a Christian current runs through even Stillman’s most hedonistic comedies. On raising children, Lady Susan cheerfully says, “With the smaller ones, there’s a sweetness that partially compensates for the dreadful issues that come later.” Lines like that make this the most quotable movie so far this year (along with Deadpool, weirdly enough).
In addition to all this, Stillman directs with a visual flair that he has never shown before, embracing the opulence of the Irish country manors that serve as locations and Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh’s sumptuous costumes, and making text appear on the screen to provide the laughs in a scene in which Reginald’s parents (James Fleet and Jemma Redgrave) read a letter aloud. Stillman also improves Austen’s plot considerably, Lady Susan being an early work of hers, and he doesn’t forget to show us how Regency England’s male-dominated rules make Lady Susan’s selfish and occasionally cold-blooded behavior seem hard-headed and pragmatic. He turns Love & Friendship into fizzy Mozartean farce, and in so doing this American filmmaker who has always seemed out of place in his country and century has finally found a setting that suits him magnificently.
[box_info]Love & Friendship
Starring Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny. Written and directed by Whit Stillman, based on Jane Austen’s novel. Rated PG.[/box_info]