The first thing most of us think about when we hear the name Jane Austen likely isn’t comedy. Thanks to shoddy high school English classes, you likely have the idea of a stuffy costume drama you half-remember watching on the BBC. There may be bits of wit you remember, but Austen often gets lumped in with more humorless writers, such as the Brontë sisters. Which is too bad! Austen’s language had a way of singing off the page, and she could write zingers and one-liners like few other writers in history. Were she alive today, she would likely be a world-renowned comedy writer, but few filmmakers have been able to translate the quickness of her wit to the screen in a way that does it justice. Whit Stillman, the writer/director behind Amazon Studio’s Love & Friendship, manages to do just that with one of Austen’s lighter, lesser-known novels.
Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale), recently departed from the Manwaring estate after becoming possibly too friendly with the married head of the household, seeks refuge at the home of her in-laws. The widowed Lady Susan is a notorious flirt, and when she shows up, daughter packed away at boarding school, she immediately sets her sights on the handsome, quick-witted Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel). The two strike up an immediate romance, much to the dismay of her sister-in-law, Catherine (Emma Greenwell). But when Lady Susan’s daughter (Morfydd Clark) and her dim-witted suitor (Tom Bennett) show up to the house as well, chaos ensues, relationships crumble, and the truth, slowly, comes out.
Love & Friendship is an exceedingly talky film, so the cast matters considerably. While there are old pros in supporting roles – like Chloë Sevigny and Stephen Fry as a married couple who insert themselves forcefully into Lady Susan’s business – many in the cast are relative newcomers to the big screen. They are uniformly excellent, though I think particular notice needs to go to Kate Beckinsale and Tom Bennett. Beckinsale is a talented actress who rarely gets the kind of roles she deserves, but here she gives Greta Gerwig’s Mistress America character a run for her money as an opinionated, outspoken dilettante running roughshod over everyone else in her life. It’s a phenomenal performance, one that informs almost every second of the film’s runtime, because if Lady Susan isn’t talking, you can be rest assured the rest of the cast are talking about her.
Well, with the exception of Tom Bennett. Bennett, a British TV star, plays the kind-hearted but thick-witted suitor of Lady Susan’s daughter, and he positively steals the show in all his brief scenes. Bennett’s Sir James Martin is an inordinately wealthy man who only has eyes for Frederica, Lady Susan’s daughter, but whose love is doomed to go unrequited because Frederica isn’t quite as much of a social climber as her mother. Fans of Pride & Prejudice may recognize the archetype from Pride & Prejudice, as Bennett plays him as a kinder, sillier Mr. Collins, but Bennett is both more cartoony and, I think, a much warmer presence than Collins ever is. His penchant for misunderstanding could be frustrating, but Bennett grounds it in a puppy-dog like need to please that ends up making it appealing.
Stillman’s script gives them all room to shine, of course, and keeps things from tilting too far over from comic obliviousness into full-blown obnoxiousness. Aided by Austen’s talent for recognizing issues of class and hypocrisy, Stillman’s hyper-verbal script never feels random or purposeless, its many jokes well-grounded in character and theme. One particular extended bit about the Ten Commandments gave me the hardest laugh I’ve had in a movie theater this decade, the sort of playfully preposterous riff you expect to live on forever in social media. That Stillman and Austen have found a story this engaging while also giving us a wonderful comic anti-heroine is a lovely treat. There’s not as much depth here as, say, Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising – an irony, believe me, I understand very well – but it is nevertheless a delicious dessert.
Whit Stillman, it seems, is the perfect person to adapt Austen. While Love & Friendship lacks the dignified sweep of the BBC Pride & Prejudice or the lush romanticism of Joe Wright’s take, Stillman manages to mine one of Austen’s earlier stories for a rich vein of comic insight. Because make no mistake: Love & Friendship is the year’s funniest film by a landslide, a droll, witty farce that never stops talking and never runs out of things to say. As a romantic comedy, it’s a bit slight, and undone by the fact that it focuses all its energy on its darkest characters. As romantic farce in the mode of Mistress America‘s back half, however, Love & Friendship is an absolute treasure.
Love & Friendship is out now in select cities. Written and directed by Whit Stillman and adapting Jane Austen’s novella Lady Susan, Love & Friendship stars Kate Beckinsale, Chloë Sevigny, and Xavier Samuel.