Sunday, May 22, 2016

Love & Friendship (***1/2)

Written and Directed by Whit Stillman


"Facts are such horrid things!" cries Lady Susan, the main focus of Whit Stillman's latest film, Love & Friendship, and it's a statement that captures so truly the obtuse, ridiculous nature of this woman. The film is based on a Jane Austen novella which wasn't published until decades after her death. Gone is the striking nobility of Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice; the prudent judgment of Sense and Sensibility's Elinor is nowhere to be seen. In Lady Susan, we're privy to disdain, egotism, diabolical calculation; nothing like the usual heroines of Austen's literary works. Stillman was obviously charmed by the naughtier aspects that Lady Susan provides, so much so that he took Austen's work and expanded upon it for the film's screenplay (Stillman even collaborated with Little, Brown to write a novelization of his expansion, which was released earlier in the month, running concurrently with the release of the film). I guess now is as good a time as any to admit that I've never seen any of Stillman's previous films, but regardless, Love & Friendship is a wonderfully affected period piece, a film both cheerily aware of its silliness while still having the patience to do justice to its densely-packed narrative. Like all great Austen works, the story is a sarcastic cultural commentary, denigrating the foundations of a society that values women for little more than what they can provide for men. But Love & Friendship is a rarity, a film that showcases the exploits of a woman who seems to encourage the very society that Austen enjoyed so much to tear down. Not that Lady Susan is built up as the story's hero. Quite the contrary, as the film proceeds, the list of enemies that Lady Susan accrues grows and grows, but it's a testament to Stillman and his main star, Kate Beckinsale, that Lady Susan is a fascinating woman to behold, one of the most unique Austen creations I've ever seen.

After two decades of seeing her fight werewolves in the Underworld films, or playing someone's wife/girlfriend in films like Pearl Harbor or Contraband, it's easy to forget what a talented actress Kate Beckinsale can be in the right part. Lady Susan is a character with such overwhelming personality, with motivations and allegiances changing so quickly that it's hard to keep up. And yet, Beckinsale seems to have a pitch-perfect touch for this role. In the film's open, the recently widowed Lady Susan is fleeing from the home of Lord Manwaring (Lochlann O'MearĂ¡in), after her affair with the man has gravely upset Manwaring's wife Lady Lucy (Jenn Murray). Hoping to outrun the aristocratic rumor cycle, she turns to the brother of her late husband, Sir Charles Vernon (Justin Edwards) who lives in Churchill with his wife Catherine DeCourcy Vernon (Emma Greenwell). Preceding her visit, Catherine and her brother Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel), dish about Lady Susan's reputation as a flirt and a charlatan, while Charles defends his sister-in-law - she is, in fact, still grieving the loss of a husband. Of course, grief is actually not very high on the list of emotions Lady Susan is feeling as she scampers toward the home of relatives. Her main goal? Acquiring the heart of the sweet-hearted Reginald, and thus marrying back into stability and nobility. Lady Susan is quite adept at manipulating the emotions of men, and Reginald is no different. No sooner is he recanting his earlier slander of Lady Susan, than he is defending her virtues. Catherine is quickly worried that her brother will tarnish not only his reputation but the whole DeCourcy name by falling under her seduction. But Lady Susan's plan becomes quickly complicated when her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) escapes from school and joins her in Churchill. Resistant to her mother's orders that she marry the spirited but dimwitted Sir James Martin (a splendid Tom Bennett), the mother and daughter are already at odds, but when Frederica's presence begins to threaten Lady Susan's chances with Reginald, the fireworks within Love & Friendship truly begin.

Lady Susan proves to be equally resourceful as she is manipulative, staying one step ahead of the DeCourcy family desperate to get her claws out of the naive Reginald. Though there are times when Frederica begins to rival her mother's sinister nature. The mother-daughter relationship is harbored by Lady Susan seeing the helpless Frederica as little more than a nuisance, a nuisance she hopes Frederica will marry herself out of. Clark gives a good performance here, showing just how much Frederica both is and isn't like her conniving mother. Lady Susan's only true ally is Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny), an American expatriate living in London, married to a much older gentleman (Stephen Fry) who also happens to share the common dislike of Lady Susan and the complications her romantic entanglements bring to the table. The monotony of her own married life leaves Alicia with little entertainment than the wonderful gossip that Lady Susan provides with every visit, and the loyalty that Mrs. Johnson shows toward Lady Susan is unmatched. Surely, Lady Susan is vain, pretentious and does little in the way of thinking of others. Alienating all those around her - including her own daughter - only her predilection for seduction has kept her afloat in society. It's Beckinsale's portrayal that makes Lady Susan such a fascinating being. Particularly in her scenes with Sevigny (Stillman has employed this duo before, in his 1998 film The Last Days of Disco), the English actress effortlessly portrays the overinflated ego, the bloated sense of self-importance, and the complete obliviousness to the carnage she leaves in her wake. And Stillman weaves such a torrid, whirling story while placing it into such a tight framework, handing us charming character after charming character that it's difficult to be turned off by their possible vapidity. The ensemble is splendid, surrounding Beckinsale with equal parts disgust and astonishment. Tom Bennett as the ludicrous Sir James also stands out, finding such clever ways to play such a stupid character. Much of Love & Friendship is from Stillman, but he does a tremendous job of keeping true to the spirit of Austen: that perfect balance between the societal indignation and sincere heart. It's the most entertaining romantic comedy I've seen so far this year.

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