The non-prolific American auteur Whit Stillman, that often wry and precisely comic observer of the New York yuppies scene, took a thirteen year hiatus from the film world after his last cult favorite The Last Days of Disco before returning unannounced in 2011 with Damsels in Distress. His latest and most commercially successful venture to date finds Stillman molding his own comic satire of the frivolities of the upper class and the disingenuously selfish nature of friendly relations with Jane Austen's epistolary novel Lady Susan in the Irish-British romantic period comedy Love & Friendship. Starring Stillman regulars Kate Beckinsdale (her first film in over four years) and Chloe Sevigny as well as a splendid supporting cast including Stephen Fry, Tom Bennett and Xavier Samuel, the austere, precisely photographed and largely dialogue comic romp of manners and manipulation is an often wry and snarky assailing of one poor woman playing the system and several of her friends in high society to her own personal gain. Based upon Stillman's own novelization of the forty one letters comprising Lady Susan, the film is a droll and impishly sardonic laugh riot of sophistication and wit, driven by a powerhouse performance by Kate Beckinsdale who runs the risk of making you love a character you most certainly should hate.
While I admit to being a newcomer to both Jane Austen and writer-director Whit Stillman, the film which kept coming to mind while watching Love & Friendship was Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon and not because it's a handsomely photographed, staged and edited period piece. Not since Lyndon or debatably Peter Greenaway's The Draughtsman's Contract has the romantic period drama had such a modern sensibility driving it or with such bitterly comic humor. A standout supporting performance in this goes to Tom Bennett as a potential suitor for Beckinsdale's daughter who provides one of the most absurd pieces of acting since Aubrey Morris in A Clockwork Orange. Watch for a scene where he gets the number of the ten commandments wrong and his even more asinine retort. Also strong is Xavier Samuel of The Loved Ones who provides a dramatic counterpoint to Beckinsdale as well as his own subtle brand of snark. Only Chloe Sevigny seems out of place when trying to feign a British accent but no matter. Visually the production design is splendid Old English decor all photographed with ornate precision by Richard Van Oosterhout. Aiding the sense of snark are the use of subtitles when introducing characters like silent movie stars as well as scenes where letters are read and the distinctly Old English dialect is written onscreen. This is a film to have your ears perked upright for as the actors fire away at their archaic dialogue faster than David Fincher's The Social Network and subtle jabs can be easily missed if you're not paying attention.
For those wishing for their comedy to be less reliant on lowbrow transgression with greater emphasis on intellect and biting wit, Love & Friendship is a pleasant and finely tuned surprise that proves to be one of the year's sharpest comedies! If Beckinsdale doesn't receive an Academy Award nomination for her show stealing performance in this, it will be a crying shame. With her take on Austen's dialogue, her manner of speaking, her subtle expressions and light smiles you can infer exactly what she's scheming without fully comprehending the archaic and spoken a mile a minute dialect. The film feels less like a romantic comedy than a sharply humorous heist thriller with a wealth of double crossing, backhanded dealings and convoluted plot threads which push the film's laughter just shy of being a screwball comedy. For those of you thinking based on the trailer this would only appeal to Jane Austen fans or a predominantly female demographic are sorely mistaken and are missing out on an often hilarious ride driven by a splendid performance by Kate Beckinsdale. One of the few times where the dialogue and setting are dated by the time of the author's life yet the sensibility behind it is absolutely immediate and timelessly modern.
- Andrew Kotwicki