American director Whit Stillman, 64, has made only four feature films since his debut feature, “Metropolitan” (1990), shot on a budget of slightly more than $200,000, won critical acclaim and was said to augur the arrival of a filmmaker with a distinctive style in American cinema.
Despite this meager output, Stillman’s work possesses a thematic and stylistic distinctiveness. All four of the films he made before “Love & Friendship” were quasi-comedies of manners that dealt with a very particular segment of American society: the second generation of the wealthy American bourgeoisie, which rarely gets screen treatment.
“Metropolitan” was about a group of affluent young socialites in Manhattan during high society’s debutante ball season. It depicted a disconnected social world whose very existence in the late 20th century was surprising, and which some of the characters – as well as the director – treated with heavy irony. Stillman’s second movie, “Barcelona” (1994), portrayed the complex relationship that develops between a representative of a U.S. company in that city and a friend who comes to visit him unexpectedly.
This was followed by “The Last Days of Disco” (1998), set in the early 1980s, in which two female college graduates crave professional success and look for love in Manhattan’s exclusive clubs. Stillman’s fourth feature, “Damsels in Distress” (2011), was about three coeds who try to foment a revolution in the chauvinistic atmosphere that rules in their fictitious elite college.
The highly specific social portraits that Stillman created were characterized by a paucity of plot – usually revolving around intrigues that develop between the characters – and an abundance of witty dialogue. Stillman is known as a director whose characters talk incessantly; accordingly, his films require attentiveness – not always a recipe for box-office success.
Until now, he worked exclusively with original screenplays penned by himself (the script for “Metropolitan” earned him an Academy Award nomination). Despite that, it’s not altogether surprising that for his latest screen project he turned to a different source: an early Jane Austen novella titled “Lady Susan.” Although it was written in the 1790s, when Austen was about 20, it wasn’t published until 1871, many decades after her death in 1817.
Creative but flawed
The bourgeois or aristocratic society that forms the hub of Austen’s works, with its rigid rules and ambitious drive for status and money, is an early, parallel, version of the world Stillman portrayed in his previous films. Her novels, too, have served as the basis for quasi-comedies of manners replete with social insights and clever lines – though not “Lady Susan,” a largely unknown epistolary work.
Stillman’s screen adaptation discards the original work’s structure, instead converting the letters into dialogues, many of them indeed witty. The director has clearly sought to make an intelligent cinematic adaptation of Austen’s novella, but the result, though displaying considerable creative flair, is flawed.
There are several reasons for this disappointment. Stillman’s films have always exuded intelligence and sophistication, but these were offset by iciness and alienation. That was appropriate for the social and class portraits of his earlier pictures, but is less suited to Austen’s world. Various ploys are used in “Love & Friendship” in order to underscore the fact that this is a screen adaptation of a work of literature. These stratagems also help us understand who’s who among the numerous characters and shed light on their class and family ties. But Stillman’s devices also create a certain degree of distancing from the film, which is not exactly bursting with emotion in any case.
The iciness also emanates in part from the fact that, in contrast to other Austen works, whose heroines are kindhearted, the protagonist of “Love & Friendship," a title apparently intended to reference Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility,” is an egotistic intriguer who exudes emotional coldness herself. The character could be of interest, but in Stillman’s version we follow her moves from afar. We do not identify with her; nor, unfortunately, does she arouse much interest.
Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) has been left an impoverished widow by her husband’s death. She moves in with her late husband’s parents (Jemma Redgrave and James Fleet), and when her situation there becomes inconvenient, she leaves and becomes a burden on her sister-in-law, Catherine DeCourcy Vernon (Emma Greenwell), who lives with her husband Charles (Justin Edwards) on an estate in a less prestigious region.
Lady Susan’s brain is a hive of activity, and her mouth is equally hyperactive, producing pearls of rhetoric. Fortunately for her, Catherine’s handsome young brother, Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel), is also staying on Catherine’s estate. Catherine, who loathes Lady Susan, discovers to her horror that her brother is attracted to the beautiful – and older – widow, who for her part is looking for a match that will let her live comfortably for the rest of her life.
Susan has an accomplice, Alicia Johnson (Chlo Sevigny), an American woman married to a far older man (Stephen Fry), who, though he comes down with occasional illnesses, refuses to die – to Alicia’s chagrin. Surprisingly, Lady Susan’s plans are derailed by her own daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark), who, having escaped from her fancy school, turns up unexpectedly on the estate of Catherine and Charles. Frederica, toward whom her mother feels dutiful but without an iota of maternal sentiment, could prove competition for Reginald, who in the meantime thinks Lady Susan is the most beautiful and sophisticated woman he has ever met. To ward off potential competition, Lady Susan tries to persuade her daughter to marry the affluent Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), who is not only much older than she but a total idiot to boot (his character provides most of the comic relief). Lady Susan schemes and plots unceasingly, but we already know that plans are one thing and their successful implementation something else entirely.
The problem is that, in contrast to previous movies and television series based on Jane Austen works – which also dealt with the pursuit of class and money – Lady Susan’s escapades and their consequences don’t grab the viewer’s curiosity. Things move along at a rapid pace, one intrigue after another, but they don’t grab us dramatically or emotionally.
The result tends to cynicism without a shred of the romantic element that is almost always part of the essence of Austen’s art. Beckinsale gives a skilled performance, delivering long monologues proficiently, but she fails to instill complexity into Lady Susan’s character and, hence, emotional and moral ambivalence that could stir interest in her. She and the other characters remain up there, on screen, without Stillman bridging the space between us and them.
It’s a handsome production, like most period pieces set in Great Britain, but that’s not enough to make “Love & Friendship” more than a marginal work – certainly in the context of the majority of the adaptations of Austen’s books for the screen, both small and big.
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