Director: Whit Stillman
Starring: Kate Beckinsale, Xavier Samuel, Chloe Sevigny, Morfydd Clark, Tom Bennett, Emma Greenwell, Justin Edwards, Stephen Fry
Written by Whit Stillman and (based on the novella Lady Susan) Jane Austen
Running Time: 92 mins
Release date: 27th May 2016
What is it with foreign filmmakers and Jane Austen? They always manage to hit the right note with her style and wit. Look at Sense and Sensibility, directed by Ang Lee. Now we have an adaptation of a little-known novella, Lady Susan, from small-scale indie director, Whit Stillman, who doesn’t just skim over the main attributes of Austen’s writing, he embraces it with the biggest bear hug going, delivering a film of warmth, charm, and plenty of comedy gems.
Lady Susan is a widow forced to leave the comforts of one family and move in with her in-laws. There she meets Reginald DeCourcy, a young man with whom she is taken by. With her own daughter running away from school, she decides to try and matchmake the youngster, while at the same time causing chaos as she tries to find a suitable husband.
Stillman, who hasn’t made a lot of movies in his 25+ years, has always had some form of connection with Austen in his material, so it would only be a matter of time before he attempted his own adaptation. Thankfully it has been worth the wait. Brimming with confidence, the film starts with the lead character forced out of the home she has been visiting after an apparent affair. She is regarded as a flirt and a woman who will stop at nothing to get what she wants, which immediately you think she is going to be unpleasant.
On the contrary. Lady Susan is a breath of fresh air when it comes to Austen characters. Full of sharp wit and biting commentary, she is good company and even if she may be the darker side of Austen’s usual leads, she is a woman of class and style who you don’t mind being ever so slightly naughty. Alongside Lady Susan is an array of characters that shimmer and shine and are all brilliantly fleshed out. Thanks to Stillman’s beginning, in which the main players are given individual headshots with a little touch of information about them, it allows us to enjoy them even more without long, unwanted exposition about their lives.
The cast, like the writer/director, embrace the material with glee, giving us fully rounded characters and loads of energy that keeps the film skipping along at a nice pace and allowing plenty of room for the humour to hit home. Notable performances from James Fleet as Reginald’s father, Justin Edwards as Susan’s brother-in-law and Chloe Sevigny as Susan’s American confidant.
Yet the film is wistfully led by a superb Kate Beckinsdale as Susan, bringing a feeling of grace while at the same time, never missing a beat with her comedic delivery. Possibly her best performance to date, it’s a joy to spend 92 minutes in her company. As is the real star of the film, Tom Bennett as the wealthy yet idiotic James Martin (no, not the TV chef). Coming into the film half way through, he steals it from under everyone’s nose with a comedy performance that should be lauded with huge amounts of praise. It is hilarious, with his subtle ticks and mannerisms to the bizarre nonsense that comes out of his mouth, delivered with tremendous happiness like a puppy with a new bone. It could possibly be the performance of the year.
Love & Friendship is a surprising joy of a film, rich with interesting characters and crammed with comic invention. It might be a tricky film to track down but it is well worth it. Not many comedies nowadays can make an audience laugh out loud the way that this did. Well done, Mr. Stillman, it’s a gem!