Saturday, September 17, 2016

Whit Stillman Does Jane Austen

I think this is the funniest adaptation of Jane Austen's work I've ever seen. Based on one of her more obscure short novels,"Love and Friendship" follows a brief period in the life of a scandalous woman. This is the widowed Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale), whose fortunes are at their lowest. She's penniless, reduced to living off the generosity of friends and relations, and has been forced to relocate to the household of her sister-in--law, Catherine (Emma Greenwell). She quickly wins over the affections of Catherine's brother Reginald (Xavier Samuel), an eligible bachelor, despite maintaining a secret relationship with her married lover, Lord Manwaring (Lochlann O'MearĂ¡in). Then there's Susan's timid daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark), who Susan is keen on marrying to the rich, but blockheaded Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett).

The most important relationship in the film, however, is the close friendship between Lady Susan and her friend Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny), an American who has married the older, disagreeable Mr. Johnson (Stephen Fry). It's only in Alicia's company that Susan speaks anything resembling the truth, confiding her secret plans and her contemptuous feelings for everyone else around her. It's clear that where Susan's position may appear precarious and unstable to outsiders, she sees it as a valuable opportunity to improve her fortunes. She knows the rules and restrictions of her society very well, and has no problem whatsoever with manipulating everyone in reach to get what she wants, including her own daughter. And she's so utterly unapologetic about it, and delightfully bitchy, that you can't help but root for her to succeed.

Whit Stillman's American comedies of manners have always been impressive, but not really to my taste, probably because his dialogue is so self-consciously stylized, and many of the elements feel oddly anachronistic - even when they're meant to be period films. "Love and Friendship," however, is the exact opposite, a very modern take on the social foibles of a bygone era. Lady Susan and Alicia are perfect Regency era mean girls, dropping elegant barbs and backhanded compliments with every step. The dialogue comes in torrents, especially from Lady Susan, who is able to talk circles around every challenger. It's only bad luck that lands her in the predicaments that she finds herself in throughout the film. And as it becomes more apparent how little control a woman of Lady Susan's circumstances would normally have in these situations, the more admirable her outrageous behavior becomes by comparison.

Before this, I'd never seen Kate Beckinsale in a proper leading role that didn't involve CGI-enhanced vampires, which is a shame. She's wonderful here as Lady Susan, charismatic, poised, infuriating, and above all funny. She heads an impressive cast, who all have a ball milking their lines for all they're worth. I especially enjoyed Tom Bennett as the genial, idiotic Sir James, mucking up his Bible verses and basic introductions. Jenn Murray has a brief, but searing appearance as Manwaring's wronged wife. Morfydd Clark manages to nearly weaponize Frederica's meekness. Sevigny and Fry are dependably spry. And then there's Xavier Samuel as the idealistic Reginald, who is clearly the most principled of the lot, not that it serves as any protection against Susan's schemes.

And, of course, there's Whit Stillman, whose voice is readily apparent in the elaborate dialogue, and gets in his little visual gags via intertitles and captions. His best notion is the use of character introduction screens from the silent film era, complete with full names and descriptions. It's just exaggerated enough to be fun, but not so much that it breaks the illusion of being a period piece or losing any charm. I'm not familiar with the original Austen novel, but Stillman's adaptation has clearly added more cynicism and sharpened the humor to the point where "Love and Friendship" feels more like something from Oscar Wilde. This would make a pretty good companion piece to "The Importance of Being Earnest."

I admit I expected very little from this film, not having had the best luck with Stillman's work in the past, but this was a treat. It's easily my favorite of his films, and I hope he sticks around in the UK to make a few more.


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