Love & Friendship (2016) by Whit Stillman
Review by Zach Dennis
One of the biggest gripes I’ll have with a period piece film is not with its authenticity or the acting involved, but its lack of any cinematic traits. A lot of the times, this genre will feature lavish cinematography, puffy award-winning actors doing their best classical impression in hopes of a Globe Theatre call, and staged set pieces that feel ripped from what is playing on Broadway or the West End.
Enter Love & Friendship, which is adapted and directed by Whit Stillman from a Jane Austen novella. The differences in this film to its contemporaries is subtle, but impactful. The biggest takeaway is not its pitch perfect acting (which it has), its dressed up locations, or its cathedral-filling score. No, the defining factor is that Love & Friendship feels like a story made specifically for the movie screen, and while it comes from the work of Austen, Stillman’s sensibilities and directing creates a truly cinematic experience.
The film follows Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale), who has been recently widowed and seeks to spend time at the home of her sister-in-law, Catherine (Emma Greenwell), and her husband, Charles (Justin Edwards). Also at the house is Catherine’s brother, Reginald (Xavier Samuel), who is initially distrustful of Lady Susan, but becomes smitten with her worldly knowledge and persuasive language. Lady Susan also seeks the counsel of her friend Annie Johnson (Chloe Sevigny), whose husband, Mr. Johnson (Stephen Fry), sees through the vile tongue of Lady Susan and her cunning ways.
It is easy to be quickly struck by the beauty and wit of Beckinsale as Lady Susan so it isn’t so far-fetched that Reginald would fall for her quickly. The skill of Stillman’s script is to infuse the most subtle of jabs and snide remarks — floating over your head if you weren’t paying attention. He also pulls a technique that most closely resembles Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums and introduces each character before the fact with a haloed name card that shows both their face and their relevancy to the story.
This feels less like a crutch for the audience (even though it is quite helpful), but also a quick detour to allow for a comedic cut back and forth between the more organic introductions of the characters and their five second shining moment, allowing the film to work within the confines of cinema rather than its literature roots.
This trait is something that holds back the majority of costumed dramas, which feel too much like the directors and actors are trying to channel what they’ve seen on the stage and implement it into a medium that is different. The same can be said about trying to emulate a book or novel, but Love & Friendship feels more interested in exploring its cinematic roots while still paying notice to the story, and accomplished author, that its source material comes from.
Most notably, Stillman allows for more elongated moments of humor. For instance, one when Lady Susan is introducing her daughter Frederica’s (Morfydd Clark) prospective husband, Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), and rather than cutting away and attempting to generate the laughs from the awkwardness and silence bestilled on the scene. Instead, Sir James (played impeccably by Bennett) just fumbles through his speech and feels more like a Victorian-age Michael Scott than some refined costumed regent.
The freshness of how these scenes develop is something that feels both rich and new for this genre of films, and allows Love & Friendship to feel like a treat rather than a work of art that you have to psyche yourself up to watch. Stillman displays that even the most subtle touches and flourishes can cause of ripple of creativity and energize the material.
That isn’t a slight on the actors involved, who again, play the parts so straight that it allows for the consistent condescension to roll off as if nothing is happening. As Lady Susan insults her relatives, or plots something wrong and devious, it seems like yet another conversation in this time period rather than something heinous and erroneous. This is both a testament to Stillman and his adaptation, but also to Beckinsale, Sevigny, and Bennett, who seem to be playing the part as if they were performing in the most royal of settings, but with the most humorous of outcomes.
Love & Friendship is an invigorating flower that blooms into yet an even more pronounced and remarkable work of cinema. The technical and creative craft involved seem something foreign yet utterly comfortable and the acting is both dignified and dirty at the same times. It may not be like Solomon, but this film definitely has a lot of merits.