Since 1990, auteur Whit Stillman has made five movies that are perfectly rendered unto the worlds that he creates on screen. These acerbic comedies of manners are located among the upper crust of Manhattan youth (“Metropolitan”); career kids by day/club kids by night (“The Last Days of Disco”); American expats (“Barcelona”); college kids attempting to wrest some control over the libertine university atmosphere (“Damsels in Distress”); and now, 1790s England in “Love & Friendship.”
There’s plenty of sex and intrigue between the sexes in Stillman’s films, but they aren’t romantic — they’re more interested in dissecting the intricacies of mating rituals between men and women. “Love & Friendship,” though it takes place 200 years ago, falls squarely into that realm. Adapted from the Jane Austen novel “Lady Susan,” it follows the scheming of the widowed Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) as she navigates life in England’s stratified class system.
The film sees the reunion of Chloe Sevigny and Beckinsale, who took the discotheques of New York City by storm in Stillman’s “The Last Days of Disco.” Here, Sevigny plays Susan’s best friend and confidant, American Alicia Johnson. There’s a similar dynamic between the two in “Love & Friendship,” with Beckinsale as the motormouth who never stops her constant analysis of the world, and Sevigny as the softer friend who nevertheless follows suit.
While there’s a particular romanticism to Austen’s filmed adaptations, there isn’t a swoon in sight in “Love & Friendship.” Susan is acutely aware of her limited options, and the husband scheming she gets up to for herself and her daughter is a matter of survival — they are dependent upon the largesse of their relatives and in-laws for a place to live until Susan can marry them off to hopefully rich men. Those who imagine marriage as anything else, such as her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark), are written off as saps.
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But “Love & Friendship” is immensely charming and laugh-out-loud funny. It’s possible to miss some of the funnier lines because the audience might be laughing too hard at the previous one. Susan excels at cunning double talk that takes a minute to understand: Every line is an insult wrapped in silver-tongued politesse. Beckinsale owns every second she’s on screen, and listening to her take on Stillman’s sharp and witty language again is a welcome tonic.
A comedic standout is British actor Tom Bennett as the buffoonish simpleton Sir James Martin, to whom Susan is trying to marry Frederica off. His ongoing bit about misunderstanding the name “Churchill,” and his delight in with the “jolly,” “tiny green balls” that are peas is infectious. He fits in so well to the Stillman universe that it almost seems like he was there all along.
Xavier Samuel is quite good as the resident tousled hunk Reginald DeCourcy, with whom Susan viciously toys. The legendary Stephen Fry is a welcome presence as Mr. Johnson, Alicia’s older husband, whom Susan deems “too old to be governable, too young to die.”
“Love & Friendship” is so winning that it leaves you wanting more from this world, especially since Stillman and Austen seem to be a match made in heaven. It’s a reminder that the trifecta of Stillman, Beckinsale and Sevigny create an intoxicating brew of dry comedy and astute commentary that is sorely missed. However, Stillman’s films are so singular that they’re worth the wait.
Love & Friendship
☆☆☆☆☆ out of 5
Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Chloe Sevigny, Xavier Samuel, Stephen Fry, Morfydd Clark, Tom Bennett.
Director: Whit Stillman.
Running time: 1:32.
Rated: PG, for some thematic elements.