Love and Friendship  is a Whit Stillman movie based on Jane Austen’s unfinished and comparatively little-known novella Lady Susan. It follows the poor, but the manipulative widow, Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) after her affair with the married Lord Manwaring is discovered, and she is forced to move to her brother-in-law’s estate in Churchill. She stirs up the quiet, country estate with her flirtations and scheming; setting her sights on young bachelor Reginald DeCoursey (Xavier Samuel), while throwing her unfortunate daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) at the gormless, but very rich Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett).
A Comedy of Manners: Love and Friendship is a comedic gem. Unlike other Austen adaptations, it focuses far less on romance and instead relishes the humor found in all of Austen’s novels. The comedy comes from how socially unaware all of the characters are in a time where each is bound by society’s rules, dress codes and manners. Watching them break the rules, intentionally or unintentionally, is extremely entertaining, and it offers up commentary not just on the ridiculousness of each character, but on the ridiculousness of society in general.
Offscreen: A lot of the ‘big moments’ you might expect from a film like this actually take place off screen. Proposals, love confessions, and even a lot of the small moments of connection that help set up burgeoning romances happen outside of the main plot. While this may be off-putting, and can at times make it more difficult to connect with the characters, it actually works well thematically. The story is about each character attempting to maneuver within a constrained society, working with very little information and often very little power (money and influence), to outwit each other, and gain what they want out of others. Nobody ever has the full story, they are working from second-hand information and rumors. It also works to establish the unawareness that each character has of themselves and others, and sets up a lot of the comedy.
Love to Hate: Kate Beckinsale as Lady Susan is excellent. The character is hilarious because she understands society’s games and she plays them well; watching the other characters (particularly the male ones) fall into her traps and for her charms, it is impossible not to like her. She’s the kind of character you love to hate, and Kate Beckinsale delivers each hilarious line, with perfect nonchalance. You’ll find yourself admiring her schemes (and kind of rooting for them). No one quite outdoes Lady Susan, but the movie is packed with fantastic characters. Lady Susan’s American friend, Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny) who encourages and schemes alongside her is brilliant, Frederica’s transformation from quiet mouse-like creature to a confident, well-loved songbird is lovely to behold, and Reginald DeCoursey is possibly the closest thing to a classic Jane Austen hero you’re likely to get in this film. The almost show-stealer is Sir James Martin; he’s an idiot of the highest order and has some of the most memorable scenes of the film.
Austen’s Voice: The movie injects Jane Austen’s narrative voice into the story in an enjoyable and light-hearted way. The presence of Austen is most felt during the introduction of each character. The cast of characters in this movie is large, and they’re all connected so to make things easier, as each character is introduced commentary explaining who they are (and who they are connected to) is superimposed on the screen. This gives us some gems like, ‘Lord Manwaring: a divinely handsome man’, and ‘Sir James Martin: a little bit of a “rattle”’. It helps to ease you into the story and get to know the characters while giving a sense of the original novel’s voice.