While Whit Stillman’s preceding endeavour Damsels in Distress was overly quirky and unbearably whimsical in parts, there’s a certain sincerity and alluring charm to his latest production, which thankfully doesn’t suffer from the same fate. Love & Friendship is an endearingly quaint adaptation of Jane Austen’s novella Lady Susan, and tonally Stillman has found a wonderful, compatible balance, in this deliciously tongue-in-cheek affair.
Set in the 1790s, Kate Beckinsale plays the socialite Lady Susan Vernon, a mischievous widow who arrives at the estate of her in-laws hoping to find a partner for her long-suffering daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark), and perhaps even look to remarry herself. In the meantime she is hellbent on establishing herself as a respectable woman once more, amidst rumours circulating of her inappropriate conduct. Beguiling, manipulating, and seducing her way around the male contingency, confiding only in her close friend – and equally as morally corrupt Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny) – she takes a liking to the bachelor Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel), much to his sister’s (Emma Greenwell) disdain.
The title, though committed to its period limitations, maintains a certain relevance without compromising the setting, in what feels like a timeless tale where the prevalent notion that exists is of the flaws in humanity, playing on very real, relatable themes that resonate with audiences as much today as they ever will have done, as, needless to say, we all know somebody like Lady Susan, though perhaps in a somewhat watered down form. Stillman presents this tale in a truly indelible manner; creative and resourceful without feeling contrived nor pretentious in his execution. The way we weave between characters is seamless too, in this labyrinthine narrative structure that flirts – much like our protagonist – between different factions within this society.
Kate Beckinsale turns in one of her finest performances to date as this Machiavellian schemer, though while worthy of such commendation, she has been blessed with a truly remarkable character creation, and one so absorbing and devilishly conniving, you long for a spin-off series of her own. What also comes out of this experience is the ability to appreciate quite how astonishing a writer Austen was, and while Stillman’s stamp on this tale is distinctive to his sensibilities as a filmmaker, the narrative thrives, primarily, from the original mind who crafted it.