Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Love & Friendship

LOVE & FRIENDSHIP (Whit Stillman, 2016)

The tart comedy LOVE & FRIENDSHIP savors passive-aggressive verbal fencing under the guise of polite conversation. Writer-director Whit Stillman’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s novella LADY SUSAN arms Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) with a devastating rapier-like wit with which she makes ribbon of her counterparts. Beckinsale expertly wields the veiled put-downs and Jedi mind tricks in Lady Susan’s arsenal, using perfect inflections to sound civil while criticizing or manipulating those on the receiving end of her words. At a time when being a widow made women particularly vulnerable, Lady Susan’s facility with language and persuasion is a means to survival.

When suspicion at Langford of her affair with Lord Manwaring (Lochlann O’Mearáin) makes staying there untenable, Lady Susan makes a hasty departure to visit her in-laws’ estate Churchill. The widow’s reputation as a flirt precedes her and is cause for her sister-in-law Lady Catherine Decourcy Vernon’s (Emma Greenwell) concern, as her eligible brother Reginald Decourcy (Xavier Samuel) proves susceptible to Lady Susan’s diabolical charm. With no husband and little of her own to speak of, Lady Susan is calculating how she can ensnare a man to provide for her comfort and security.

She fears that the arrival at Churchill of her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) could potentially shift Reginald’s attention until Frederica’s intended, Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), appears there as well. Sir James is a fool and of no interest to Frederica, but as a wealthy landowner, Lady Susan has strategically identified him as an ideal match for her daughter, thus securing their welfare. Nevertheless, Frederica, having promised her mother not to trouble her aunt and uncle with her lack of affection for Sir James, confides in Reginald. Lady Susan adeptly stamps out this potential undoing of all she is putting into motion, but the complications of controlling her daughter, maintaining Reginald’s fascination, and continuing to see Lord Manwaring on the sly are increasing.

LOVE & FRIENDSHIP treats matters of the heart in purely practical terms. Beckinsale’s performance does not apologize for Lady Susan’s ruthlessness and, in fact, delights in her devious brilliance. Lady Susan comes across as an effortless conversationalist, which obscures how Beckinsale is often closely observing the cues in social settings and revealing the character’s hyper-awareness in shaping her every utterance. The morality of her guiding principle can be fairly questioned, but the film sympathizes with Lady Susan, as she is attempting to maximize the benefit in a game social structure has rigged against her. The significance of the introductory narration is impossible to comprehend in the moment, but by the end, it becomes clear that the person speaking of Lady Susan’s time at Langford understands the difficult position she inhabits.

Stillman’s remarkable screenplay requires careful parsing of what is being said implicitly. The entire film is best understood by reading between the lines. Many of the most consequential events in LOVE & FRIENDSHIP happen off-screen, yet Stillman leaves no confusion regarding such developments and the motivations behind them. Discretion is of the utmost importance for these characters, yet scenes tend to be framed as though eavesdroppers on the grounds and in the hallways could be privy to what personal information is being shared. Privacy is thus presented as something of a mutually agreed-upon illusion just as forthright opinions are shrouded in well-manned discussions.

Much of the humor derives from cutting remarks, with the hilarious exception of the buffoonish Sir James. Bennett plays the silly suitor like a computer with latency problems. Sir James hears the other side of a conversation and takes noticeably longer than normal to process it and respond. His muddled replies are usually in a stilted cadence indicative that his mental faculties are still lagging. LOVE & FRIENDSHIP exhibits no similar operational defects but rather runs smoothly on Stillman’s aptitude for dissecting the social order and knack with pointed and cultured jokes.

Grade: A

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