Rating in Stars: ***½ (out of ****)
Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Xavier Samuel, Morfydd Clark, Stephen Fry, Chloe Sevigny
Director: Whit Stillman
MPAA Rating: PG (for some thematic elements)
Running Time: 1:32
Release Date: 05/20/16 (limited)
Love & Friendship gambles with our good will from the get-go with a protagonist who would be, in any other movie, the antagonist by trying to control everything with her manipulative hands. By positioning her as the head of a small ensemble and, thus, the person with whom we are supposed to empathize, writer/director Whit Stillman (adapted a novella by Jane Austen) tests our ability by then attempting to force us to buy into the woman’s motivation. It is an experiment that works, because Lady Susan Vernon, the recently widowed woman who deals with her grief by vainly clutching everything and everyone dearest to her close to her chest, is a once-in-a-blue-moon creation.
She is also played by Kate Beckinsale in a performance that receives the majority of the quick-witted dialogue (Imagine if Aaron Sorkin had written a period piece, and this character is that creation in microcosm), transforms itself into an art piece of its own, and then transcends all expectations we have for this character–even the ones higher on the list. This is a truly magnificent turn from the actress, who doesn’t merely chew but eats and digests the scenery, all the while remaining empathetic. It might be a rather cliché sentiment, but one is unable to take one’s eyes off of her.
Her husband, who was entitled with great wealth that has now passed onto her and their daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark), has indeed died, and Susan has arrived to stay with his family–her in-laws–including his brother Charles (Justin Edwards) and Charles’ much younger wife Catherine DeCourcy (Emma Greenwell). Susan must also contend with the husband (Stephen Fry) of one of her best friends, an American named Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny), who believes she will be sent back to the States if her husband has his way. Meanwhile, the dashing Lord Manwaring (Lochlann O’Mearáin) has left his wife (Jenn Murray) in a tizzy about potential infidelity.
That latter subplot doesn’t have much significance until a development at the end, but until then, the film is concerned with affairs of the heart, as two potential suitors enter the picture. The first is Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel), Catherine’s brother, who is younger by far than Susan but falls head over heels for her nevertheless. Sir James Martin (an uproariously funny Tom Bennett) courts Frederica, much to the young woman’s dismay, for the gentleman is, not to put too fine a point on it, foolish in the extreme. He means well, though, and is well off when it comes to money.
It takes about 15 minutes for Stillman to catch his stride and for us to engage with the film’s breakneck pacing, but once Love & Friendship hits, it’s impossible to dislike. It even provides a bait-and-switch for an audience expecting the narrative to go in one direction while the film’s two love stories take sharp left turns in a final few minutes. The cast are all on-target, the tendency for the film to introduce us to characters by way of close-ups and profiles with his or her name and a non sequitur description underneath never fails to garner a chuckle, and generally speaking, everything that could have come off precious and quirky gains a richness through the film’s capturing an era wherein a woman has no place to be manipulative. Even more surprising: We get a sense of why she is and how she got there. Here is a delightful surprise.