Mild-mannered, well-groomed, high-stakes, period-piece social satire reigns supreme in Whit Stillman’s sharp film adaptation of a “lost” and incomplete Jane Austen novella. Austen simply titled it after her conniving, widowed but still lively anti-heroine Lady Susan (played with perfectly vivacious high-brow snark by Kate Beckinsale), but Stillman plays on Austen’s “Blank & Blank” template and renames it Love & Friendship. The title itself a rouse, much like the import of debutante season in Stillman’s Metropolitan.
As in the most superior of Austen or Stillman works, high society types are on display in all of their entertaining mannerisms and foibles. The two authors separated by centuries seem a perfect marriage, as humor both scathing and dry, bites and blows across the posh manners, country estates and London townhouses where Susan plots to find both her and her daughter (Morfydd Clark) rich husbands to secure their futures. Never do the characters seem aware of their preposterousness, as if all of life is a parlor game, and their scruples (or lack thereof) never are challenged even as gossip and innuendos challenge their lot and plot.
Fans of Austen will be treated to the usual rounds of meddling but kind familials, suitors both dashing and doltish (Tom Bennett does a great 18th century interpretation of a low-IQ version of Ricky Gervais, who is routinely described by Lady Susan as being “no Solomon”), and plot twists as it’s gently indicated maybe Susan was never in control in the first place. Stillman fans will delight in the reunion of his muses Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny (playing Lady Susan’s American ex-pat friend, whose boorish older husband constantly threatens to ship her back to Connecticut for good), who are as at home here in costumes and finery as there were on the dance floors of The Last Days of Disco.
Stillman, who never became as prolific as one had hoped, seems like he should’ve been making a whole career out of Austen adaptations. As with forced happy endings inherent to the genre…better late than never.
Written by David H. Schleicher