“LOVE & FRIENDSHIP” (2016) Review
I never thought any film or television production would find another story written by Jane Austen to adapt. Not really. The author only had six novels published. And I was never really aware of any other novels, novellas or short stories . . . until I learned about “LOVE & FRIENDSHIP”, Whit Stillman’s adaptation of Austen’s 1794 epistolary novel, “Lady Susan”.
Set during the 1790s, “LOVE & FRIENDSHIP” began with the aristocratic and lovely young widow, Lady Susan Vernon, being forced to leave the Manwaring estate due to her dalliance with the married Lord Manwaring and the hysterical reaction to the affair by the latter’s very wealthy wife. Lady Susan had been staying with the Manwarings in order to arrange a possible marriage to her adolescent daughter Frederica and the wealthy, yet brainless Sir James Martin. But after being forced to leave by Lady Manwaring, Lady Susan and her widowed companion, Mrs. Cross, head to Churchill, the country home of her brother-in-law, Charles Vernon and his wife, Catherine Vernon. While at Churchill, Lady Susan becomes acquainted with her sister-in-law’s handsome younger brother, Reginald DeCourcy. Reginald becomes deeply attracted to Lady Susan, who views him as a potential husband or lover. She also continues her plans to ensure that Fredrica becomes Sir James’ wife.
“LOVE & FRIENDSHIP” offered at least two reunions for actress Kate Beckinsale. The movie marked her second foray into the world of Jane Austen. Some twenty years earlier, she had portrayed the lead in the 1996-97 adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel, “Emma”. Beckinsale also found herself reunited with director/writer Whit Stillman and her her co-star Chloë Sevigny. She had worked with both on the 1998 comedy-drama, “THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO”. In the end, I must admit that I enjoyed “LOVE & FRIENDSHIP” very much. I would not regard it as one of my favorite Austen adaptations or one of its best. But I must admit that due to its unique protagonist and Whit Stillman’s witty direction, I really enjoyed this film.
However, there is one aspect of “LOVE & FRIENDSHIP” that I found confusing. And there is another that I found somewhat disappointing. For the likes of me, I do not understand why Stillman did not use the novel’s original title for the movie. Instead, he borrowed the title, “LOVE & FRIENDSHIP”, from another one of Austen’s early works that had been written in 1790. Why Stillman had decided to use this title instead of the one from the 1794 novel upon which this movie was based . . . I have no idea. Frankly, I found it not only unnecessary, but also confusing.
I was also confused by Lady Susan’s movements in the film’s third act. She seemed to travel back and forth between London and Churchill without any real reason. And if there were reasons for her constant traveling, they seemed to be presented with a blink of an eye, due to Stillman’s unusual direction style. There were times when I found Stillman’s pacing just a bit too fast. This led to my last problem with “LOVE & FRIENDSHIP” – namely its running time. I realize that the movie’s literary source is a short novel written in epistolary form (usually, a series of letters or other documents). But a part of me felt slightly disappointed that “LOVE & FRIENDSHIP” could have possessed a longer running time. For me, 93 minutes is not long enough – especially for a lush Jane Austen cinematic adaptation.
But as I had earlier pointed out, I still managed to enjoy “LOVE & FRIENDSHIP” very much. Unlike the other Austen stories familiar to me, this tale struck me as rather unusual. Most Austen movie or television adaptations were set between 1800 and 1820 – with the exception of 1995’s “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE”, which seemed to be set on the cusp of the 18th and 19th centuries. Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh’s costume designs seemed to make it clear that “LOVE & FRIENDSHIP” is definitely set during the first half of the 1790s.
But the most original aspect of “LOVE & FRIENDSHIP” was the story’s protagonist – Lady Susan Vernon. Villainous protagonists are not exactly new in various movie and television protagonists throughout the years. But they barely exist in a Jane Austen story. The closest she has come to creating a villainous protagonist in the six novels familiar to millions was Emma Woodhouse in her 1815 novel, “Emma”. But Emma proved to be more of a misguided protagonist forced to learn a lesson in the end. Lady Susan Vernon, on the other hand, is not a nice woman. She seemed to harbor a good deal of contempt toward others – including her own daughter, Frederica. Which means she is not a good parent. She is self-involved, a liar, a manipulator, a gold digger and quite possibly a borderline sociopath. Some have compared her to Mary Crawford from “Mansfield Park”. However, I suspect Mary might be more of an anti-heroine than a villainess. Unlike Lady Susan, she is capable of warmth and compassion. I cannot say the same for this movie’s leading lady. And yet . . . unlike Emma Woodhouse or Mary Crawford, Lady Susan did not learn a valuable lesson about her character or faced punishment for her sins.
And like many other Austen productions, “LOVE & FRIENDSHIP” was filled with a great deal of wit. I suspect a good deal of it came from Stillman’s own pen. Among my favorite lines – many of them from Lady Susan herself:
*”Americans really have shown themselves to be a nation of ingrates, only by having children can we begin to understand such dynamic.”
*”That’s the parent’s lot! We bring these delightful creatures into the world—eagerly, happily—and then before long they are spying upon and judging us, rarely favourably. Having children is our fondest wish but, in doing so, we breed our acutest critics. It is a preposterous situation—but entirely of our own making.”
*”My dear Alicia, of what a mistake were you guilty in marrying a man of his age! just old enough to be formal, ungovernable, and to have the gout; too old to be agreeable, too young to die.”
*”He has offered you the one thing he has of value to give . . . his income.”
Speaking of Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh’s costume designs, I noticed that they had failed to earn any Academy Award or Golden Globe nominations. Mhaoldomhnaigh did earn nominations from the Satellite Awards and the San Diego Film Critics Society. But they are not exactly regarded in the same sphere as the Oscars or Golden Globes. I did come across one blog – Frock Flicks – in which the writer felt that Mhaoldomhnaigh had failed to created historically accurate costumes. Well . . . historically accurate or not, I found them rather colorful and beautiful, as shown in the image below:
Another aspect of “LOVE & FRIENDSHIP” that I found colorful was Anna Rackard’s production designs. I thought she did a wonderful job in re-creating the world of the Georgian Era of the 1790s in both London and in several landed estates. Both Mhaoldomhnaigh’s costume designs and Rackard’s production designs benefited from Richard Van Oosterhout’s colorful cinematography.
As for the cast . . . I find it mind boggling that none of the major cast members managed to acquire a major acting nomination. Especially three of the main leads. First of all, the movie featured some first-rate acting from the supporting cast, which included Stephen Fry, Jemma Redgrave, James Fleet, Xavier Samuel, Emma Greenwell and Morfydd Clark. But there were three performances that I found truly outstanding.
Tom Bennett gave a hilarious performance as the dimwitted baronet, Sir James Martin. His character reminded of the numerous Austen characters who would ramble on, spouting some of the most inane comments. But thanks to Bennett’s skillful performance, Sir James proved to be the most inane and hilarious character ever created by Austen. Chloë Sevigny, who had co-starred with Beckinsale in “THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO”, gave a very charming and subtle performance as Lady Susan’s American-born confident, Mrs. Alicia Johnson. Thanks to Sevigny’s performance, her Alicia proved to be just as unscrupulous as Lady Susan, but a bit more subtle and much wiser – as the final act would eventually prove. But the star of the movie proved to be Kate Beckinsale, who an outstanding performance as the witty, yet calculating Lady Susan Vernon. Beckinsale’s Lady Susan was not only deliciously bitchy, but also stylish and skillful in the way she pursued her goal that I could not help but cheer her own . . . despite the manner in which she treated others, especially her daughter. To this day, I still cannot understand how Bennett, Sevigny and especially Beckinsale failed to garner major nominations for their performances.
As I had earlier pointed out, I do not regard “LOVE & FRIENDSHIP” as one of the best Austen productions I have ever seen. I had a few problems with the movie’s pacing and some of the narrative in the third act. The humor featured in “LOVE & FRIENDSHIP” did not leave me laughing on the floor with laughter. But Whit Stillman’s delicious screenplay and direction had me smiling continuously throughout the film and sitting on the edge of my seat, anticipating Lady Susan’s final fate. However, it was the excellent performances of the cast, led by the superb Kate Beckinsale, that truly sold me on the movie in the end.