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New Release Review - LOVE & FRIENDSHIP

Whit Stillman adapts Jane Austen's Lady Susan.




Review by Eric Hillis (@hilliseric)

Directed by: Whit Stillman

Starring: Kate Beckinsale, Chloe Sevigny, Xavier Samuel, Stephen Fry



I've long been on the fence with regard to the validity of Beckinsale's talents as an actress - her filmography is loaded with stinkers - but her career-best performance here suggests the problem lies with her choice of roles. This almost feels like a debut, giving us a side of the English actress we've rarely seen before as she rampages through this film like a force of nature.




Nobody was too shocked to discover that Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice and Captain America: Civil War shared numerous plot similarities, but you wouldn't expect a Whit Stillman drama to have much in common with a broad comedy starring Seth Rogen. Yet, Love & Friendship and Bad Neighbours 2 are remarkably similar in both structure and theme. Both feature a female character forced to adopt an aggressive stance by a society that denies her the same rights as men. In both films, said female imposes herself on a family who try their best to get rid of her. That one is set in the 1790s and the other right now, tells you how far we still have to go to stop failing half our population.


Stillman's film is an adaptation of one of Jane Austen's lesser known works, the epistolary novella Lady Susan. Kate Beckinsale reunites with her Last Days of Disco director to essay said Lady, recently widowed and left without means thanks to the law of the time denying women the right to inherit their spouse's estates. In order to reestablish herself in society, Susan ups herself to her brother-in-law's country estate and sets about searching for husbands for herself and her unenthused daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark).

I've long been on the fence with regard to the validity of Beckinsale's talents as an actress - her filmography is loaded with stinkers - but her career-best performance here suggests the problem lies with her choice of roles. This almost feels like a debut, giving us a side of the English actress we've rarely seen before as she rampages through this film like a force of nature. She's an unlikely but perfect vessel for Stillman's whipcrack dialogue, spewing forth casually narcissistic insults like an eighteenth century female version of Christian Bale's Patrick Bateman.


It's easy to view Beckinsale's Susan as a monstrous sociopath as she cuts a vicious and often cruel swathe through society - even threatening to have one man whipped for the crime of daring to address her in public - but much like Greta Gerwig in Mistress America, by the film's conclusion we come around to empathising with her. It's often said that when a man speaks up for himself he's simply being assertive, but when a woman attempts the same tactic she's labelled a bitch. Susan is simply looking after her and Frederica's best interests; she simply needs a few lessons in social skills. Not as many, mind you, as Tom Bennett's Sir James Martin, the bumbling gent whom Susan attempts to hitch her daughter onto. Bennett's scenes provide many of the film's comic highlights - Sir James is a character you won't forget easily.


Stillman's film is to smart and witty dialogue as The Raid 2 is to bone-crunching action; there's so much of it, and it comes at us at such pace, that it's almost overwhelming, and I suspect this is a film that will benefit from repeated viewings to fully ingest Stillman's weighty text. I have to confess a negative bias against British costume dramas, but Stillman's American outsider take, much like Robert Altman's in Gosford Park, is far from the staid and stuffy BBC or Merchant Ivory productions usually associated with the genre. Imagine Downton Abbey if scripted by Shane Black and you'll have an idea of what's on offer here. On this evidence, think what Stillman could have done with Pride & Prejudice & Zombies!

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