2016 very well might be The Year of the Anachronistic Jane Austen Adaptation (if it’s not already being billed as The Year of the Confined Space Thriller or The Year That Superhero Spectacles Shat the Bed). Besides the Comedy Central reality show spoof Another Period, which recontextualizes Austen-era social machinations in a petty Keeping Up with the Kardashians mindframe, we’ve also been treated to the just-as-silly-as-its-title-suggests Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. That latter, zombified Austen bastardization didn’t make much of a splash when it was released this last spring, but I got a kick out of the way the horror comedy accentuated the verbal sparring of its source material by making it literal sparring in some ludicrous knockout fights between high society women. The most recent entry in The Year of Austen Anachronisms is Wilt Stillman’s Love & Friendship, adapted from the lessor known, minor Austen title Lady Susan. While the far less subtle Pride and Prejudice and Zombies felt the need to punch up Austen’s verbal aggressions by turning them into physical altercations, Love & Friendship recognizes just how biting & playfully transgressive they already are on the page. Stillman’s film finds its own anachronism by playing the material straight, but fitting it into the format of a modern, 90min comedy, with all of the playful energy that genre implies. In a way it’s similar to Sofia Coppola’s (criminally underrated) Marie Antoinette picture, just without the Converse sneakers & unavoidably depressive third act.
It’s probably best to consider Love & Friendship as a period comedy instead of a period drama if you want to quickly get on its very particular wavelength. The film’s rapidfire, breathy dialogue & playbill-style character introductions (accompanied by phrases like “a divinely attractive man” & “a bit of a rattle”) are a relentless assault throughout the film. As a subversion of its genre the film presents the same polite-on-the-surface setting & intricately beautiful costumes, but with a new, cheeky attitude. Speaking of the usual hallmarks of the costume drama, the familiar-to-the-genre Kate Beckinsale stars as the Lady Susan of the source materials’ namesake, a character at the edge of high society fringe who’s just as self-important as she is calculated & prepared to destroy. A recent “widow without fortune”, Lady Susan is a scenery-chewing Austen archetype who wields love & friendship as deadly weapons in her designs for wealth & discomfort. The movie’s tightly paced, pleasantly efficient plot mostly centers on her machinations to find well-off husbands for both herself and her young daughter. As their financial situation is direly dependent on the kindness of acquaintances at the beginning of the film, the stakes aren’t exactly low, but it’s not easy to sympathize with our “agreeable flirt” antihero as she tries to entrap a husband of the right social stature & age range (he can’t be “too old to be governable” or “two young to die”) & sleeps with other people’s husbands for fun in the meantime. Like all traditional comedies, Love & Friendship ends with everyone finding a suitable mate, but the fun in this film is in watching Beckinsale’s lead shrewdly manipulate each piece of the puzzle so that they fall into place without her barely lifting a finger. Most of the targets of her designs don’t even know they’re being played as pawns and even the ones who do, including her poor daughter, are helpless to do anything but watch her designs play out in stunned silence. They’re all ridiculously outmatched.
All of Lady Susan’s designs wouldn’t mean a thing without her supporting players, however. Chloë Sevigny (who after this & #horror is hopefully staging an indie scene comeback) stars as a friend & conspirator who’s mostly kept around so that Lady Susan has an audience to appreciate her manipulative brilliance. Then there’s the case of the wealthy, potential beaus for Lady Susan & her daughter. The younger, more desirable candidate is a handsome gent with whom she ignites “the most peculiar friendship” and whose family is scandalized that he would associate with a flirtatious widow prone to such “sauciness & familiarity”. The movie’s real secret weapon, however, is the delightful Sir James. A “very silly” man with “a charm of a kind”, Sir James distinctly recalls the posi stupidity of characters like Murray from Flight of the Conchords. He calls peas “tiny green balls” & “novelty vegetables”, finds difficulty remembering how many Commandments there are in the Bible, and dances like a delighted fool. There are varying degrees to which Love & Friendship’s male characters don’t measure up while going toe to toe with Lady Susan, but no one is as delightfully or entertainingly incompetent as Sir James, who has a way of stealing scenes he’s not even in as characters discuss the various charms & annoyances of his spectacular idiocy.
As amusing as the supporting players can be, however, falling for Love & Friendship depends largely on finding amusement in the cold calculations of Lady Susan, a delicately aggressive performance Beckinsale nails with ease. Although she’s a cunning manipulator who believes that “facts are horrid things” & leaves a few opposing women weeping in her wake, Lady Susan is a formidable social warmonger, a great encapsulation of the social combativeness that distinguishes a lot of Austen’s quietly powerful characters. Love & Friendship may include a lovable dolt performance from a character that belongs in a modern mockumentary-style sitcom & other 90min comedy conventions like a continuous stream of alternate take jokes included with its end credits, but it intimately understand the appeal of Jane Austen’s powerful (& humorous) archetypes in a way that’s not always captured in the more self-serious adaptations of her work. Much like the character of one Sir James Martin, the film is an all-around delight that never outwears its initial charm.