Love & Friendship (2016)

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I have studied English Literature at university, and one course I enjoyed the most was that on satire – and through encounters with various notable satires of the past, I have discovered that one aspect of the arts that has always remained constant is that of comedy. The view that the past was dour and utterly serious is something far too many people believe, and with the rise in cinema, and the decline in reading, people are starting to believe that a book can’t be funny – and that is obviously hilariously incorrect, because if there is a masterwork of comedic literature, it is Jane Austen’s Lady Susan, a comical novel about love and friendship – which has recently been translated into a film called, well…Love & Friendship.

Love & Friendship is a complicated film – it stars Kate Beckinsale as Lady Susan Vernon, a witty and manipulative young widow who has a plan to get her daughter, Frederica, married and find herself a suitor to allow her to keep her status as a wealthy woman. Over the course of the film, Lady Susan travels to various manors and estates, asserting her influence on others, with her eye being particularly fixated on Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), a dim-witted and foolish, but otherwise well-meaning and sweet (and most importantly, incredibly wealthy) young man who she tries to convince her daughter to marry – but in one of the more scandalous moments of 18th century literature, Lady Susan herself marries Sir James – but the question of her agenda remains unknown, but ultimately, Frederica marries the charming Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel), and everyone has a typical happy ending that can only be found in the wonderful works of Jane Austen and her contemporaries.

Love & Friendship is not a film for everyone – in fact, it applies to a very niche audience. The film was made by Whit Stillman, who I never expected to ever direct a film like Love & Friendship, mainly because his previous films – Metropolitan, The Last Days of Disco and Damsels in Distress were all hip and trendy New York-based indie comedies, and nothing in any of these films at the primordial level made me think that Stillman would be the person to adapt a Jane Austen novel, and keep it in its original setting. However, when you consider that Metropolitan, The Last Days of Disco, Barcelona and Damsels in Distress are all heavily dialogue-based films, and how Lady Susan is quite a verbose novel, it actually proves to be a match made in Heaven, and even though I find it very strange that Stillman would want to adapt this film, I was pleasantly surprised to see it fit well into his oeuvre, and it doesn’t feel out of place with any of his other films. The fact that Stillman was still able to make such a delightful period film on such a tight budget is just another wonderful part of this film, and while it may not hold the same bohemian nature of his previous films, fans of Stillman (and the filmmakers he inspired, such as Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach) should most certainly give Love & Friendship a try – it is a bizarre combination of independent comedy with period romance, and it is one of the more delightful little gems of the year.

I was truly surprised at the performances in Love & Friendship – I never really took Kate Beckinsale for a very good actress – she isn’t terrible, but she was unremarkable. However, her past in some truly horrendous films doesn’t speak to her as an actress, but rather the writers and directors she has worked with, who didn’t bring out all of her potential. In Love & Friendship, Beckinsale gives one of the best performances of the year – snappy, hilarious and wonderfully endearing, she is utterly fantastic as Lady Susan, handling the tone and dialogue with such grace and dignity. She elevates this film beyond where it should be, and it is clear that working with Stillman on The Last Days of Disco actually gave her a sense of comfort with the dialogue-heavy films Stillman makes. It reminds me of the fact that Kate Beckinsale was primed to be a big star, but never fully achieved it. Perhaps she should find her home in these smaller (and much better) independent films, where she truly shines.

Other than Beckinsale, the rest of the cast of Love & Friendship are lovely, but I must say that one person gives an absolutely delightful performance – Tom Bennett, who steals the film as Sir James Martin, perhaps the most lovably stupid character of the year. Bennett, who is relatively unknown, is such a delightfully charming actor, and he was superb on the criminally underrated (and rapidly cancelled) Christopher Guest HBO show Family Tree. Bennett is wonderful, and he truly shines here. The film as a whole may not make it to my favorite films of the year list, but Bennett certainly will be remembered as one of the more wonderful performances of 2016, even though his screen-time is limited. Special mentions have to go to Chloë Sevigny and Stephen Fry, who do the best with limited characters, and Xavier Samuel for simply oozing charisma.

Love & Friendship is an excellent film. Hilarious, interesting and lovely to watch, it certainly is one of the more fascinating films of the year. This film doesn’t have a massive target audience – but those who love shows like Downton Abbey, and for fans of the fluffy but meaningful romances of Jane Austen will surely love this. I thought it was great, and while I was hoping for a little more coherence (it often lost control of its story, and its rapid-fire delivery of some intense dialogue proved more difficult to follow than I would have liked), I still thought it was splendid, and think it is one of the more wonderful films of the year. If the remaining four months of the year are underwhelming, I can fully expect this to appear as one of the better films of the year. A great surprise.

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