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Love and Friendship

April 4, 2017

Love and Friendship (2016)
Director: Whit Stillman
Actors: Kate Beckinsale, Xavier Samuel, Tom Bennett

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Synopsis: Scandalous widow, Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale), sets hearts and tongues aflutter as she bounces between a selection of stuffy, conservative households in late 18th century England.

Review: Although nominally adapted from Jane Austen’s novella “Lady Susan”, Whit Stillman’s Love and Friendship can be best read as a part-loving, part-satirical homage to the now hugely over-familiar Austen brand of romantic entanglements and sly social commentary.

Various features portray this intent to essentially manufacture an Austen pastiche for weary contemporary audiences: he introduces all the players in bizarre, comic poses with irreverent caption, and he makes Kate Beckinsale’s mischievous Lady Vernon a quasi-anachronistic conduit round which the pomposity of late 18th century English aristocratic society is laid bare. One lovely early scene that thematises Stillman’s undercutting of the usual, exalted Austen canvas is when Lady Vernon’s new residence, Churchill, appears in view, yet she describes it as “boring” although in any other Austen adaptation this would be a conventional country house for the drama to play out on. Another such scene is when Lady Vernon comes across Reginald DeCourcy – worthy of romantic hero status in any other Austen drama – but Lady Vernon’s sole intent is to undercut that nobility by making him totally emotionally subservient to her (which she succeeds in doing).

Stillman’s final triumph is in the grand inclusion of the colossally rich (but colossally stupid) aristocrat, Sir James Martin – incidentally, a great performance by Tom Bennett. Martin essentially becomes the means by which Vernon can retain her place in exalted society without the least bit of emotional investment, and Martin’s idiocy comes out in a series of ingenious skits – the best of which is when he claims there are “twelve commandments” and then haphazardly has to backtrack by claiming two can be removed at one’s own will when the other characters inform him there are only ten! It’s a lovely little skit that honours the pleasing charm Stillman is able to project over his subject matter. (April 2017)

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