Love & Friendship (2016)

loveandfriendship_2016_poster
Love & Friendship (2016)
  • Time: 92 min
  • Genre: Drama | Romance
  • Director: Whit Stillman
  • Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Chloë Sevigny, Xavier Samuel

Storyline:

Set in the 1790s, Love and Friendship centers on beautiful widow Lady Susan Vernon, who has come to the estate of her in-laws to wait out colorful rumors about her dalliances circulating through polite society. Whilst there, she decides to secure a husband for herself and her rather reluctant debutante daughter, Frederica.

3 reviews

  • (RATING: ☆☆☆ out of 5)

    THIS FILM IS MILDLY RECOMMENDED.

    IN BRIEF: A comedy of manners in need of more comedy.
     
    GRADE: C+

    SYNOPSIS: The Widow Vernon searches for love and security in British aristocratic society.

    JIM’S REVIEW: Finding a suitable suitor is the sporting game and all the rage in Whit Stillman’s stuffy but diverting period film, Love & Friendship. Renamed as such, from Jane Austen’s 18th century novella, Lady Susan, this comedy of manners looks at relationships with a modern day sense and sensibility, but its screenplay lacks the necessary charm and wit to captivate its audience. The film is a rather stodgy affair in need of some enlightenment and, dare I say, fun.

    Poor Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale)! Living a recluse life amid vicious rumors of her improprieties circulating in British upper class circles, the Widow Vernon begins to take matters into her own hands. Her goal is simple, though her course of action is rather complicated: A husband is her ultimate conquest and providing a secure future for her daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark). She starts to narrow the field of possible suitors, from the rich to the pompous. Her possible targets include attractive and quite young Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel), wealthy and witless Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), and already married (and rarely seen) Lord Manwaring (Lochlann O’Mearain). As we watch her scheme unfold and complications ensue, so too do her American friend, Alicia (Chloe Sevigny), and her questioning sister-in-law, Lady Catherine (Emma Greenwell).

    The script by Mr. Stillman contains some droll humor and clever asides, but the farcical elements never achieve the rightful level of satire. Too much of the action is played off screen, with events suddenly changing the characters’ actions. These incidents seem more like plot devices than actual period responses. There is also a slight anachronistic modern-day feel in the film’s narrative structure with the overall effect becoming a playful seduction in the battle of the sexes. Nevertheless, Love & Friendship still entertains its moviegoing audience, even if its pace is of the slow and leisurely Masterpiece Theatre variety.

    Mr. Stillman directs his able cast with an assure hand, although his film is too episodic and choppy. The mood swings erratically from melodrama to drawing room comedy as characters range from pretentious buffoons to conniving schemers. The actors play their roles well, especially Mr. Samuel as the smitten lover and Mr. Bennett as the foppish fool, the latter breathing some life and needed energy into these dreary proceedings. At the center of the tale is Ms. Beckinsale’s Lady Susan, who looks the part and carries of the elegance and beauty of this self-centered vixen, but the actress never quite succeeds in showing her character’s deviousness and hidden jealousies behind all of her manipulations.

    The period details are impeccably mounted and add authenticity to the film. The costume design by Elmer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh is flawless, Richard Van Oosterhout’s atmospheric photography enhances already exacting production design by Anna Rackard, and a lyrical score by Benjamin Esdraffo lends the proper refined airs of haughty elegance.

    Love & Friendship may show these aristocrats as foolish and superficial foils blindly following society’s demands. The film creates an acerbic view of a time when men may have had financial dominance over women, yet it was that fairer sex who had more power with their arsenal of beauty and poise…that upper hand ultimately being a simple feminine gesture than made the male of the species swoon in their cunning presence. As for this film experience, one may not be totally beguiled watching Love & Friendship, but any moviegoer will be easily seduced by Mr. Stillman’s love of language and style.

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  • Kate Beckinsale is an unalloyed delight as Lady Susan Vernon in Love & Friendship, writer-director Whit Stillman’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s posthumously published epistolary novella, Lady Susan. Austen and Stillman go together like Rogers and Astaire, and Love & Friendship is an excellent reminder of Stillman’s sterling wit and ease with upper class mores.

    Described by various characters as “the most accomplished flirt in all of England,” “a diabolical genius,” and one most capable of “captivating deceit,” Lady Susan is indeed a most masterful manipulator. Most of the fun to be had is in watching this undeniably attractive, recently widowed, financially threatened woman destroy every comfort in the lives of the British landed gentry and swat away every reproach or confrontation as if dealing with crippled mosquitoes. Naturally, Lady Susan feigns innocence at any harm done, any marriages broken, and any ambitions so dishonestly achieved; everything she does has always been for the sake of her eligible young daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark), though the young woman has the most unfortunate notion in her head that on shouldn’t marry for money and improved social standing.

    Lady Susan is not exactly the type to consider her own daughter’s wants and needs. In fact, the supremely selfish Lady Susan is unlike any protagonist Austen, or any writer of the time for that matter, has put on the page. She’s introduced as she decamps from one estate for her indiscretion with the very much married Lord Manwaring (Lochlann O’Mearáin), whose understandably upset wife Lady Lucy (Jenn Murray) writes to the fine and upstanding Mr. Johnson (Stephen Fry) of the havoc Lady Susan has wreaked. Mr. Johnson directs his American wife, Alicia (Chloë Sevigny), to sever her friendship with Lady Susan or else be shipped off to the wilds of Connecticut (“You’ll be scalped!” Lady Susan exclaims), but Alicia secretly continues on as Lady Susan’s confidante and sometime aider and abetter in her scheme to secure the wealthy but doltish Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett) as a husband for the reluctant Frederica.

    In the meantime, Lady Susan and, later on, Frederica are welcomed into the home of Charles Vernon (Justin Edwards), her faithful brother-in-law whose wife Catherine (Emma Greenwell) is increasingly perturbed by Lady Susan’s blossoming friendship with and influence over her younger brother Reginald (Xavier Samuel). Lady Susan may wield her widowhood and maternal motivations as symbols of her righteousness, but she is all too aware of her own precarious position as an unmarried woman so she is all too happy to encourage Reginald’s romantic affections, partly to secure him for herself and partly to ensure that the path is cleared for Sir James to pursue Frederica.

    It’s evident that Stillman loves Beckinsale and Sevigny, who served as his leading ladies in 1998’s The Last Days of Disco, which tracked two young Hampshire College graduates as they fell in and out of love whilst frequenting the New York City disco scene. Despite its stately houses, beautifully decorated interiors, lovely costumes, and luminous cinematography, Love & Friendship often takes on an airless quality when neither actress is on-screen perhaps because they, but particularly Beckinsale, command the action. The rest of the characters are all puppets either falling under Lady Susan’s sway or, in the case of Catherine, seeing what’s going on behind Lady Susan’s facade but has nowhere near the level of intelligence required to deflect her maneuverings. How can they not pale in comparison to Lady Susan’s plethora of pithy putdowns and mockingly self-aware lines like “Facts are horrid things”?

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  • We don’t really have to wait for the novelization promised in the end credits for Lady Susan Vernon to be “thoroughly vindicated.” It’s in the film.
    Whit Stillman’s reading of Jane Austen’s novella anatomizes the constrictions the male-cantered social structure places on women and the manipulations and wiles women need to survive them. However dishonest, cunning, manipulative, cynical and both amoral and immoral she may be, Lady Susan does what she has to do to survive in an antipathetic social order. Her survival and her daughter’s marriage validate her schemes.
    The narrative arc moves from the widow Lady Susan’s banishment from the Manwaring estate, where she has been seducing the master, to her daughter’s wedding. There Lady Susan is titularly married to a wealthy fool but is carrying Manwaring’s child. The plot is Lady Susan’s triumph despite a series of exposures and failed plans.
    There is a clear discrepancy between the genders’ power and worth in this battle of the sexes. Only Susan and Manwaring have any religious spark; everyone else reads vapid. More importantly, Manwaring apart all the men are hapless tools and gulls. The intelligence, sensitivity, awareness and the capacity to plan and to act rest solely in the women.
    Yet the men have all the power, all the authority. The women can effect their desires only by manipulating the foolish men. As a penniless widow with a young daughter Lady Susan can be forgiven her manipulations of the silly men who don’t deserve their authority and power.
    Susan’s sister-in-law Catherine is a positive contrast. She has Susan’s insight into male vanity and helplessness along with her ability to manipulate her husband. But she is direct and forthright about it. She deploys her cunning to protect her gullible brother and to preserve her family’s honour. Unlike Susan, though, Catherine can afford to be thus open.
    The three other women reflect their gender’s powerlessness. The American Alicia Johnson must sneak forbidden meetings with her close friend Susan under her husband’s threat of exile back to the dread Connecticut. Manwaring’s abandoned wife, despite her wealth and her protection by said Mr Johnson, is reduced to mad wailing by her humiliation. Susan reduces her supposed friend Mrs Cross to unpaid attendant until necessity finds her a job — until which she is at her “friend’s” mercy for sustenance. Susan’s assertiveness gains validation from these examples of women’s helplessness in a patriarchal society.
    The tension between a placid formal social surface and the tensions of gender warfare plays out in Manwaring’s name. As spelled, the name suggests the external face of manliness, the man that is worn whether for shelter, warmth or protection in a society biased against women. But the name is pronounced Mannering, as if the manners and social conventions are part of the patriarchal ordering that ensures the men’s advantage over women, however foolish and redundant the men — and needy and worthy the women. As the title suggests, both love and friendship are the arenas in which the social conventions oppress women — and where the outlaw widow must scheme to survive.
    The young and handsome Reginald, for all his character and virtue, proves Susan’s most gullible prey. He is the film’s most articulate man, in contrast to the verbally silliest, Owen, whom Susan initially plots to marry her daughter then weds herself to cover for her pregnancy by Manwaring. The other men speak in the short bursts of period foppery — except for Manwaring, who speaks not a word. As the sexual and motive force in the film, his wordless power contrasts to his partner Susan’s chatter and trickery and the other men’s vacuity. Manwaring’s expression is strictly in his stone face and steely eye. That he is Susan’s object and objective reminds us of the imbalance of power between the sexes. It is for his cold protection and hot embrace that Lady Susan so chillingly conducts herself. Not entirely to her discredit, when we gauge her need and the helplessness of the recessive women.

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