By James Hancock May 13th, 2016
As someone who was frequently assigned Jane Austen’s literature as an English major at the University of Virginia but never actually read a word of one of her novels, I probably have no business reviewing any movies based on her work. To further illustrate the depths of my ignorance on this front, I must also confess that I have never watched a single movie adaptation of any of her novels in spite of having voraciously consumed thousands of films over the last few decades. I am, however, a rabid fan of filmmaker Whit Stillman so it was a foregone conclusion that I would see his new film Love & Friendship on opening day, one that I am happy to report is likely to be one of the funniest films released all year. Based on the novella ‘Lady Susan’ which was published in 1871 more than fifty years after Jane Austen’s death, Whit Stillman has completely exploded every uninformed bias I previously held toward adaptations of Jane Austen. Contrary to the bloated, stale luxury porn I expected to encounter, the film Love & Friendship displays the type of light, witty and very sexy storytelling that has been seen far too rarely ever since the days of the great screwball comedies of the Thirties and early 1940s. I was either smiling or laughing outright every moment from start to finish of this very lean 92 minute film, one that very well might be the most confident, impressive film of Whit Stillman’s career.
Since his directorial debut in 1990, Whit Stillman’s output has been infrequent but always worth watching with movies like Metropolitan (1990), Barcelona (1994), The Last Days of Disco (1998), Damsels in Distress (2011) and the pilot to his Amazon series The Cosmopolitans (2014) which he is now apparently going to resume. When it comes to both reveling in and satirizing New England’s idle upper crust society, there is no better American filmmaker alive today, making him in my opinion an ideal choice for adapting this tale of high society by Jane Austen. Love & Friendship follows the beautiful, well bred widow Lady Susan who in a desperate effort to avoid financial destitution engages in a series of brilliant machinations and manipulations all in an effort to find wealthy husbands for herself and her daughter. The film reunites Stillman with Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny (his stars from the underrated The Last Days of Disco), but also features an impressive cast including the likes of Stephen Fry, Morfydd Clark, Xavier Samuel and the hilarious show stealing Tom Bennett. The dialogue is wickedly funny with frequent barbed comments like, “What a mistake you made marrying him, too old to be governable, too young to die.” Beckinsale’s astonishingly subtle and witty performance makes me feel like she might be the most underutilized actress of her generation. Her talents have been utterly wasted on so many mediocrities like Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor (2001) when what she should have been doing all along is following Lady Susan’s example and manipulating Whit Stillman into making more films. I’ll be interested in hearing what Jane Austen connoisseurs have to say about this movie. I hope they’ll be pleased. All I can say is that if Love & Friendship can win over a stubborn fool like myself, I can only assume that it might be one of the best adaptations of Austen’s work we are ever likely to see.
I am one of the Co-Hosts of Wrong Reel.