Kate Beckinsale is a becoming widow without means in an adaptation that reinvigorates the breeches, buttons and bows cliches
What audacity, what elegance! Here is a hilariously self-aware period comedy polished to a brilliant sheen. Whit Stillman was probably born to direct a Jane Austen movie. But he has found a new way of dramatising Austen or just found a new Austen, an Austen who appears to have pre-emptively absorbed 21st-century satire and inoculated herself against it. This Stillman has done by lighting on an early, posthumously published novella, Lady Susan, bringing it to the screen, and renaming it after a quite separate piece of juvenilia, thus playfully echoing the classic noun balances of her more famous titles.
Its a racier, naughtier piece of work than you might expect. Naturally, it takes place in a world where money is supremely important, but it is also a story in which women are permitted to be older, cleverer and better-looking than the men they wish to ensnare. It also has a young woman talking about earning her living by taking a job: thats a worst-case scenario that does not come to pass, but even mentioning it is interesting. Here is a Jane Austen film that feels like a coolly measured theatrical chamber piece, rather than something from the full Hollywood orchestra. It reinvigorates the cliches, the breeches, buttons and bows, and proves you dont need zombies to restore this writers carnivorous appetite. Stillman uses arch intertitles as a kind of visual archaism, almost like a literary silent movie, to introduce his characters and to flash up on screen the contents of letters. With its wistful witticisms, its airy contrast of town and country, Love & Friendship somehow feels like an undiscovered Oscar Wilde play.
Lady Susan is the scandalous heroine, to whom Kate Beckinsale gives something predatory yet enigmatic, dressed very becomingly in full mourning black. She is a widow with beauty and a distinguished name, but no financial means, thus entitled to sympathy and in need of money: a dangerous combination. She has a scheming American confidante, Mrs Johnson, played by Chlo Sevigny, to whom she can periodically make her scheming explicit and also put the audience in the picture.
She has already left one aristocratic house in some disorder, having apparently exerted her charms, and is now staying with her sister-in-law Catherine (Emma Greenwell) and Catherines biddable, bufferish husband Charles a lovely performance from Justin Edwards. Here she appears to set her cap at Catherines handsome brother Reginald (Xavier Samuel), to the horror of Catherine and Charles parents: very enjoyably played by James Fleet and Jemma Redgrave. But she has a wayward daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark), whom she is trying to marry off to a wealthy blockhead called Sir James Martin.
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