LOVE AND FRIENDSHIP. Starring: Kate Beckinsale, Morfydd Clark, Tom Bennett, Lochlann O'Mearain, Xavier Samuel, Justin Edwards, and Emma Greenwelll. Directed by Whit Stillman. Rated PG (Mild themes). 94 min.
This film is based on Jane Austen's novella, "Lady Susan", and is set in the late eighteenth century. It spins its comic tale around Lady Susan Vernon, a recently widowed woman, who is determined to be a profitable matchmaker for herself and her daughter.
Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale) takes up residence in the country estate of her brother-in-law, Charles (Justin Edwards), and his wife Catherine (Emma Greenwell). Although she wants a match for her daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark), she needs a little time for people to forget her dalliance with Lord Manwaring (Lochlann O'Mearain). Manwaring is a married nobleman, who is now separated from his young wife, and Lady Susan's indiscretions are circulating widely.
At the estate, Catherine's brother, Reginald (Xavier Samuel) inevitably becomes enamoured with the flirtatious Lady Susan, who agrees informally to become engaged to him. Lady Susan arranges for a possible match between Frederica and a dull prospective husband, Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), who happens to be very wealthy, but Frederica resists his advances.
The film quickly descends into a complex array of dalliances and fractured relationships, some secret and some not. Lady Susan eventually marries Sir James, who discovers she is with child. A possible explanation is that she has not given up her desire for Lord Manwaring, who "is disposed in her favour". The film concludes with Frederica and Reginald declaring their love for each other.
This is a period drama that satirises the world of manners painted by Jane Austen, and the film conveys Austen's sense of what is improper brightly and lightly. Its period appeal reflects a world that is changing rapidly around the manipulative strategies of a woman, who knows what she wants and will do almost anything to get it. Lady Susan's so-called friends describe her as a "diabolical genius", and the film doesn't take much time to develop her character. She is self-interested, deviously attractive and manipulative, and always ends up being the centre of attention.
Kate Beckinsale is wonderful as Lady Susan. Morfydd Clark is suitably retiring as Lady Susan's "simpleton" debutante daughter, and Tom Bennett is deliciously eccentric and unpredictable as the hapless suitor, Sir James, who almost marries Frederica, and ends up with Lady Susan instead. The costuming and set designs in the film border enjoyably on the excessive.
Whit Stillman, the movie's Director, captures the spirit of Jane Austen with a keen eye. However, the film's acerbic look at eighteenth century manners lives on top of a witty script that surrounds the characters, rather than being absorbed inside them. For example, the dim-witted Sir James when informed that there are 10 commandments, not 12, starts a conversation about "which two to take off". Such comic asides literally race by, as the characters who mouth them, move on.
This movie does not have the depth or impact of "Pride and Prejudice", where a morally upright heroine finds perfect happiness by doing the right thing. Lady Susan practices her version of rectitude with total impropriety. The film does not resolve people's eccentricities, or moral failings; and it ostentatiously depicts impoliteness. But Stillman intelligently takes on board Austen's concern to demonstrate how women in a highly mannered society are weighed down by the restrictions and burdens placed upon them.
This is a rakish comedy of manners that is witty, intelligent, and visually appealing, but its sparkling dialogue lives separate to its characters, in a way that might have disappointed Jane Austen.
Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and.Broadcasting
Released July 21, 2016