“Love & Friendship” is my first Whit Stillman film. That will mean little to some, but there is a certain number of people who are gasping and wondering how I’ve made it through life thus far. I can see where this minority is coming from. If “Love & Friendship” is a representative example, Stillman’s films offer a kind of enjoyment that is nigh impossible to find elsewhere. But it comes at a cost.
For one, his stories are unlike any others — although in this case, credit for the story goes to Jane Austen. Based off of Austen’s little known, posthumously published novel, “Lady Susan,” “Love & Friendship” tells the story of Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale), a recently widowed elite who is on a mission to find financial security. Whether that entails marrying off her daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark), to the buffoonish but rich James Martin (Tom Bennet) or marrying the much more desirable — and younger — yet equally rich Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel) herself matters little to Lady Susan, as long as she gets hers and is taken care of.
First off, Beckinsale is astounding and does much of the heavy lifting in terms of making Lady Susan an even remotely watchable and tolerable character. I haven’t thought highly of her as an actress up to this point, as she’s always been relegated to roles where she’s asked little more than to play tough, pretty or both. But I’m forced to eat crow, as Beckinsale’s performance seems to prove the adage that there are no good or bad actors, only the right and wrong roles. And this is certainly one of the right roles for Beckinsale. She imbues Lady Susan with all the charm that’s required for us see why people even tolerate her presence. I hope I see more of this side of her — and less of “Armageddon” and the “Underworld” franchise.
Stillman has certainly stayed true to the spirit of Austen’s work, utilizing her biting wit and cynical disdain for upper class English society to deliriously funny effect. But the film’s key problem may be that it was too faithful to Austen. There are several instances in the film where characters read aloud from letters or poems, and as they do, the text they read is superimposed on screen. This device telegraphs Stillman’s true preoccupation: words. Film is a medium of sound and images, not text. The fact that Stillman has written novelizations of both this film and at least one of his previous films shows that he thinks himself as much a writer as a director. He seems to fit into a school of filmmaking that could be labeled the “writer/director.”
Others who could be placed in that category are directors like Quentin Tarantino, Woody Allen, Charlie Kaufman and Shane Black, filmmakers who direct their films as a way to protect their material — their scripts — rather than to shape it. They are directors who use the cinematic form to embellish, emphasize, dramatize, or visualize their words but never overshadow them. For them, the pen is mightier than the camera or the editing bay. Stillman is much more focused on the performances of his actors and making his — admittedly great — script shine. I only wish that his there was more of Austen’s wit in the filmmaking, rather than just the words. Love and Friendship feels less like a cinematic adaptation of Austen than a visualization of one of her novels, theater in front of a camera.
This isn’t to say the filmmaking is poor. It is intelligently directed, with many scenes playing out in long, unassuming wide shots that are lovely to look at. Not for their compositional brilliance, mind you, but for their showcasing of the lovely period sets and costumes. The editing is brisk and professional but does nothing shocking. I found myself wondering whether this needed to be a film and if it would work better as a play or novel.
Or perhaps this invisible, un-showy style is precisely the point. The film gives the impression of being highly mannered, like the elite society that is its subject. Stillman’s real interest seems to be how Lady Susan navigates and takes advantage of this world and how the film satirically critiques it. It’s easy to read this film as sly feminism, as a woman turns a stuffy, patriarchal order against itself. And that’s where the film’s unassuming style comes in. It, like Lady Susan, woos us with its beauty and its façade of playing by the rules of the established order, all the while quietly subverting it. But where Lady Susan succeeds, the film fails.
Lady Susan is so manipulative, callous and self-interested, it’s hard to see her as a sexism-busting icon. She’s just a selfish jerk, albeit one who’s fun to watch. She doesn’t really upset the social order, she just works it for her own ends. This kind of society is actually a benefit to Lady Susan, since she knows how to work it. At the end of the day, she makes sure that it stays rigidly, infuriatingly (for me) and romantically (for Stillman) in place.
None of this should take away from a film that’s joyously funny, with a great script and a cast to die for. (I could write a separate 1,500-word review on the performances alone). But it does taint a film with noble intentions, one that could have stayed faithful to the true goals of Austen’s literature to change and better her oppressive culture, if only its director had the insight to realize what he was really saying — or had the good sense not to become too enamored with his leading lady. In my research after seeing the film, I found a quote from Andrew O’Heir, film critic for Salon, who said “Stillman is sometimes simply too damn smart for his own good.” It seems to me, he’s perhaps not smart enough.