Love and Friendship, Whit Stillman’s fourth film and his first Jane Austen adaptation (of an early unfinished novella, Lady Susan) is really about neither love, nor for the most part friendship. What it is about is a conniving, vapid, unrepentantly devious woman. And it’s funny—deeply, deeply funny.
But more about Lady Susan Vernon (an incandescent Kate Beckinsale) later. I want to talk about you, you great oaf. I’m not sure I have ever seen a more convincing portrayal of utter cluelessness since Steve Martin’s The Jerk. Your character, Sir James Martin, is the apex of inbreeding that only the English aristocracy is capable of.
Every moment you’re onscreen is lifted out of the pre-show for the Darwin Awards. How you managed to reach adulthood without succumbing to some terrible fork related fatality is a question that, while never answered, constantly hangs in the air with every breath you take.
Feckless. If there is a better word to describe your character, I’m certainly not aware of it.
Despite your florid and twitter pated perfection Love and Friendship is not a one trick pony. Every performance (with one exception) is in aid of a clever and pointed script that revels in the poking at the class conscious stupidities that bracket both Austen and Stillman’s sensibilities. Effortlessly cutting and still somehow affectionate, the film is trifling and yet thoroughly engaging. The tone is very much in the spirit of lighter Shakespeare (As You Like It): pastoral and verging on the farcical. But there is a restraint and a commitment to character by all involved that never lets it run off the rails.
Love and Friendship is the epitome of what I think of when someone mentions Jane Austen. Set largely on remote country estates and filled with a tired ornateness that echoes the failing aristocracy it embodies, it is the perfect foil for Stillman’s wry, side-eye perspective. He is both charmed and slightly repelled by the kind of rigid hierarchies that live bone deep in Austen’s work. But he’s more anthropologist that polemicist, preferring to observe rather than chastise—and it works particularly well here.
Kate Beckinsdale’s Lady Vernon is one of those performances that remind you why there are so many UK actors populating US films. She manages to be both venal and charming, manipulative and still oddly sympathetic. It is her best work in a long time. The only real fly in the ointment is Chloe Sevigny, who just doesn’t have the chops to keep up. Her performance is flat, uninspired, and transparently amateurish in contrast to the rest of the cast.
You, on the other hand, elevate every scene you bumble into, which is saying something in a cast that also features Stephen Fry and Justin Edwards (the desk sergeant in the exceptional Paddington). There is something about you that definitely bears watching, and while I’m happy to recommend this film as a whole, it is your contribution that puts it over the top.