I’ve been anxiously awaiting Love and Friendship ever since hearing that Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny would be again teaming up with Whit Stillman. Their last project together The Last Days of Disco from 1998 maintains its status as one of my favorite films, and I had hope that Stillman could bounce back from an uneven outing in Damsels in Distress in 2011 and his unfortunate, failed pilot “The Cosmopolitans” from 2014. Beckinsale and Sevigny were both a great fit for the quick wit that is Stillman’s trademark and the prospects of all three of them working with Jane Austen was enough to put this film near the top of my most anticipated films list. After my screening, it has moved from the top of my most anticipated list to the top of my favorites list for 2016 thus far.
Despite being named after one of Austen’s juvenilias, the film is based on her short story “Lady Susan.” Beckinsale plays the titular character and the film follows her as she manipulates her way in and out of the lives of family and potential suitors. Her almost every move is calculated such as to ensure her continued fortune and status either by marrying her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) or herself off to a man of wealth and name. The only time that she lets her guard down is in her interactions with her only real friend Alicia, my much anticipated reunion between Beckinsale and Sevigny.
In all of these interactions, Beckinsale is a joy to watch. She’s quick witted and expertly mixes Susan’s essential charisma with a hint of underlying manipulation. In every scene her performance stands out almost to the detriment of the entire rest of the cast. Beckinsale does detract from the rest of the cast; days later I still remember a little of Sevigne’s performance, but nothing from the rest of the supporting actors and actresses. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The film feels no worse for this disparity in acting talent though the few scenes she’s not in do drag some.
While Beckinsale stole the screen, her performance wasn’t the only standout of the film. Whit Stillman’s style merged with Austen’s story leads to one of the funniest screenplays of the year. Stillman’s prior works have all poked fun at traditional relationships, and the constant humor in Lady Susan’s insistence into the lives of others to play matchmaker is another perfect entry. While it could be argued that Susan’s shallowness in these acts makes her a poor character, she instead is the perfect example of another common Stillman trope: focusing on rich, self-absorbed, somewhat awful human beings.
Like many of his other works, Love and Friendship is filled to the brim with short scenes and constant dialogue. Characters speak extremely fast, and it can be disorienting if you are unfamiliar with his style. Some viewers may never be able to accept the pace, but for other long time Stillman fans it will feel familiar. The speed at which lines are delivered lends itself perfectly to rewatches as additional jokes are heard and understood for the first time with each subsequent viewing.
While Whit Stillman and Jane Austen both are not for everyone, I would recommend Love and Friendship to anyone unless I specifically knew that it wouldn’t be a great fit for her or him, and even then I’d probably still suggest that they see it anyway. Kate Beckinsale’s best performance in years and Whit Stillman’s return to 1990s form lead to Love and Friendship being my first can’t miss film of the year.