Retro Review: Love and Friendship

Distributor: Amazon Studios
Director: Whit Stillman 
Writer: Whit Stillman, based on the novella by Jane Austen
Composer: Mark Suozzo
Starring: Kate Beckinsale, Xavier Samuel, Emma Greenwell, Morfydd Clark, Jemma Redgrave, Tom Bennett, James Fleet, Justin Edwards, Jenn Murray, Stephen Fry, Chloë Sevigny
Genre: Drama/Comedy/Romance

One of the more interesting releases in 2016 was a limited release of a lesser known Jane Austen adaptation called Love and Friendship. While the film industry is in no way shy to adaptations of literature’s most accomplished female author, this adaptation gained a minor cult following for its unique energy and excellent performances. The movie marked the return of the great yet forgotten Hollywood director, Whit Stillman, and has garnered a reputation amongst literary fans as one of the best adaptations of classic literature in recent years. 

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: None
Language/Crude Humor: None
Drug/Alcohol References: None
Sexual Content: Kissing, some visible cleavage, discussion of relationships and infidelity.
Spiritual Content: Characters are implicitly religious. One character misquotes the Bible.
Other Negative Content: None
Positive Content: Themes of growth and love.

Review

I’ve been trying to get into Jane Austen adaptions and novels lately. It’s probably not hard to figure out why. Austen is the single greatest female novelist of all time. As a classics nerd who loves Shakespeare and Cervantes, I want to expand my horizons into other great works of literature. Sadly it hasn’t gone as swimmingly as I’d hoped. A mid-December attempt to power through Louisa May Alcott’s masterpiece, Little Women, prior to the Greta Gerwig film, sadly ended in failure. I was unable to finish the audiobook in time. Lo and behold, the film was one of 2019’s best films and I didn’t need to read it to understand it.

At the cusp of the release of the new adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, I’m somewhat forfeit to try and start reading through my volume of Austen adaptations again. As it stands, I’m woefully unprepared to speak academically on the topic. An English major friend of mine told me years back that I ought to read the book Joseph Andrews for context because it informed much of Austen’s work, and I only got through two hours of the audiobook… Jane Austen books are defined by their subtly. They’re genteel comedies of manners about deeply Victorian and emotionally closed off characters having to work their way through 19th century British high society. They’re written largely as satirical deconstructions of the kinds of romantic literature popular in early 19th century Britain, like the previously named Joseph Andrews, so half of the depth of these stories just comes from understanding the background context. Even so, her books survive today as great works of literature entirely on their own terms.

Dense as I may be, I am a determined fool! Instead of giving up, I’m taking up a new tactic based on my experience with Little Women. I’m just gonna watch movies like a lazy person… Given my stupid male-brain’s inability to grapple with such dense literature at the moment, it’s my best shot at getting a grasp of the overall plot! Where better to start on that front than with 2016’s excellent adaptation of Jane Austen’s Lady Susan by the great Whit Stillman. He probably needs some introduction given that his films aren’t terribly familiar to non-cinephiles. Even I at the time of writing haven’t watched his three most famous films from the 1980s: Barcelona, Last Days of Disco and Metropolitan. Thankfully I’ve successfully usurped my father’s Criterion Collection copies of all three so that issue shall likely be cleared up quickly.

His adaptation is something of a strange conglomeration. Though the plot is directly lifted from Austen’s posthumously published novella, Lady Susan (which I haven’t read), the title belongs to another one of her posthumously published novellas, Love and Friendship (which I have read). That novella is one of Austen’s early works and is comprised of a series of correspondence of several women as they describe the misfortunes of their lives. Stillman’s authorial voice shines brightly through the adaptation. Love and Friendship is easily one of the most propulsive, slick and well-produced period dramas to have recently come out of the film industry. Coming in at an easy 90 minutes, it’s not too difficult a commitment.

This story in particular follows the misadventures of the titular Lady Susan. As we meet her, she’s a widowed woman who has earned herself a reputation of deep antipathy from her family and friends because of her controlling nature. In popular parlance, she’s a gold-digger. She needs to marry someone with money. She has a daughter whom she manipulates, she meets men who she manipulates, and she manages to impose upon her family enough to convince them to let her stay with them. Lady Susan may be widowed and society may allow her to disabuse her family’s privileges, but her reputation precedes her. People know who she is and what is associated with her costs. Susan has a burgeoning romance with a young man named Reginald, whose father warns him against consorting with Susan. At the same time, Susan is scheming to pressure her daughter to marry a foolish aristocrat named Sir James, who can’t count how many commandments there are in the Bible and doesn’t know what peas are. Frederica is not impressed. Hijinks, drama and gossip ensue! As is the structure of most classical comedies, the story ends in a wedding with multiple sets of characters pairing off and falling in love in unexpected ways.

The film is headlined by a veritable who’s who of mainstream British actors and actresses working today. Kate Beckinsale leads with the titular role of Lady Susan, which she plays to great effect. She finds a great balance between playing the role with a facade of formality and kindness while letting her actions speak for her character. Chloë Sevigny and Stephen Fry do excellent work playing the Johnsons; a family which Susan has a very mixed relationship with, being friends with the wife and infamous to the husband. Naturally Tom Bennett is a standout as the foolish Sir James, who steals every scene he is in. The whole cast really shows up to play though. You can tell they all enjoy relishing the chance to play such posh characters and they bring an incredible energy to the story.

As a viewing experience, my first time was one of relative confusion and difficulty following characters and motivations. I can already tell though that this will be an excellent movie upon a second viewing. I’ll be able to pick up the subtleties of the performances and notice certain story points blossom as the details come into greater focus. Given that this is extrapolation from the source material, it’s a unique adaptation to say the least. It’s a quick, witty and immensely well produced period drama that breathes life into a story that is rarely told. There are multiple great adaptations of Pride and Prejudice available. Ang Lee directed an excellent adaptation of Sense and Sensibility that’s worth watching. Additionally like I mentioned, this week brings with it the release of a new adaptation of Emma by first time director, Autumn de Wilde. Outside of the stage though, this is the first major telling for this story. If you’re like me, it’s not easy to get into but it’s worth exploring for the same reason exploring any great art is.

Positives

+ Strong performances by Kate Beckinsale and the entire cast + Beautiful production design and cinematography + Brisk pacing and runtime

Negatives

- Fairly dense plot

The Bottom Line

Love and Friendship isn't the kind of movie that will appeal to everyone's sensibilities but it's great if you have an appreciation for classic literature and the work of Jane Austen!

 

8.3

Tyler Hummel

Born into the unexplored residential backwater of Chicago, Tyler Hummel is a graduate of Tribeca Flashpoint College where he studied Sound Design for Film and Interactive Media. When he isn't hosting his public access talk show The Fox Valley Film Critics or collecting DragonBall Z figurines, he enjoys writing and directing short films. As with Rick from Casablanca, "he's a man like any other man, just more so!"

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