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Review: Love & Friendship (2016)

Directed by: Whit Stillman | 94 minutes | drama, romance | Actors: , Morfydd Clark, Tom Bennett, Jenn Murray, Lochlann O’Mearáin, , Sevigny, , , Ross Mac Mahon, , , , , , , , , , Daniel Magee, Jemma Redgrave,

We all know “Sense and Sensibility” and “Pride and Prejudice”, “Emma” and “Mansfield Park” still ring a bell here and there. But not everyone knows that Jane Austen (1775-1817) also wrote shorter pieces. The letter novel ‘Lady Susan’, for example, about a widow who flirtatiously goes a suitable (read: rich) husband for herself and her young daughter, is actually only known to the ‘hard core’ of Jane Austen fans (who calling themselves ‘Janeites’). Jane probably wrote the epistle novel in 1794, at the start of her career when she was still looking for her own style; however, it would take nearly eighty years for the story to be published in 1871. The heroine of this story, Lady Susan, differs from later protagonists in Austen’s work. She is not at all as moral and well-behaved as, say, Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice or the Dashwood sisters from Sense and Sensibility. No, Lady Susan is villainous and manipulative and is not afraid to leave a trail of misery in her search for a husband. Perfect material for a hilarious costume drama, thought filmmaker Whit Stillman, who confusingly gave his film the title of another unknown piece by Austen, “Love and Friendship” (2015). Remarkably, this is only the first film adaptation of the story.

Where costume dramas are sometimes a bit stiff, “Love and Friendship” is smooth and fresh. Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale) is living the good life, but has really not gotten a single cent since the death of her husband. However, that doesn’t stop her from going straight for her goal: to find a good, rich, new man. At first glance she is charming and endearing, but in the meantime she gets everyone around her finger. Men in particular cannot resist her charms. Lord Manwaring (Lochlann O’Mearáin), for example. Lady Susan likes that too, but yes, she is already married. For some distraction, Susan moves to the Churchill estate, where her wealthy sister-in-law Catherine (Emma Greenwell), her husband Charles (Justin Edwards) and her young, single brother Reginald (Xavier Samuel) live. The latter falls head over heels for the much older Susan, but when her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) suddenly arrives at the door, Susan’s plan threatens to fall apart. With a little help from her best friend, American socialite Alicia Johnson (Chloë Sevigny), the wealthy but not-too-bright James Martin (hilarious role of Tom Bennett) is rushed to court Frederica. However, she does not like him at all, but does not want to disappoint her mother.

The Victorian setting, lavish dresses and pompous hairstyles are present, but otherwise “Love & Friendship” is by no means standard Jane Austen film adaptation. The surprising choice of Whit Stillman (known for ‘The Last Days of Disco’ from 1998 and ‘Damsels in Distress’ from 2011, also with Beckinsale and Sevigny in the lead roles) for ‘Lady Susan’ works out very well. To make the story his own, Stillman wrote his own novel in which he explains how the characters proceed. He did that with earlier work. A big advantage of this is that he knows how to give his own twist to the story, and Stillman does that mainly with strong, often villainous and funny dialogues and one-liners, which he has woven professionally through Austen’s eighteenth-century, reserved language. and which are performed with straight faces by the members of the cast. Especially Beckinsale and Bennett make the most of the dialogues that it contains, but it is clear that the entire cast has worked with great pleasure on this film. Small downside: there are so few scenes with Stephen Fry. We would have liked to see more of that. Fry was reportedly available for only one Friday (jokingly referred to as “Stephen Fryday” by Stillman and crew), which explains a lot. Incidentally, Stillman is working on a new Jane Austen film adaptation. If it’s as entertaining as this one, we can’t wait!

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