Kingsley: ‘Love and Friendship’ (2016) finds new life in Austen

by Andrew Kingsley | 5/30/16 5:01pm

Jane Austen has seen a small insurgence in recent cinema. “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” (2016) debuted in February of this year, grafting the historical appeal of Austen’s oeuvre to our de rigueur taste for zombies. Somehow it flopped. Yet for the diehard Austenites hoping for her work to not so literally come back to life, Whit Stillman’s “Love and Friendship” (2016) brings out Austen’s sense of wit and timing in this raucous period comedy.

Based on Austen’s 1871 epistolary novel, “Lady Susan,” “Love and Friendship” centers on Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) a recently widowed public pariah known as a flirt and seductress. Homeless and lacking money, she is taken in by various friends and family, and begins the husband hunt for herself and her daughter, Federica (Morfydd Clark). She generates a panic akin to Dorian Gray, seducing young men and faithful husbands into hopeless promiscuity. Her confidante, Alicia Johnson (Chloë Sevigny), is sent back to America for confabulating with her, where, Lady Susan fears, she’ll be inevitably scalped. An Austenian femme fatale, Lady Susan plays upon high society, knowing its every stop and fret to get what she wants. Yet her only crime may be her frankness; in a society straitjacketed by its own propriety, Lady Susan merely exploits the diffidence in its civility.

Like with most Austen narratives, the intricate and dynamic web of relationships must be mapped to appreciate the story’s dizzying complexity. Lady Susan’s brother-in-law, Charles Vernon (Justin Edwards) welcomes her to his family’s Churchill estate. Here, Lady Susan initiates her marital gameplan with a grandmaster’s craft by wooing Charles’s debonair son, Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel). Meanwhile, the wealthy, loveable idiot Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett) comes to Churchill to wed Federica, who resists his attempts at courtship. And just for good measure, Lady Susan courts Lady Manwaring’s husband, the wealthy and stunning Lord Manwaring.

Stillman evokes Austen’s humor in all shapes and sizes. Sir Martin brings the guffaws with his halting, meandering babble and infantile delight in the world. Much like modern audiences, Sir Martin reflects a bafflement towards the intricacies of English high society. However, his ignorance borders on the absurd, for example when he discovers there are only 10, not 12, commandments and ponders which to remove. Or his simple delights in the playful, little green balls on his plate — peas, he soon learns — and the lively dance he apishly claps along to after dinner. Then there is the incisive wit of Lady Susan, whose impatience with courtship’s decorum and protocol lead her to mock the entire process — “Facts are such horrid things,” she admits. No wonder she just attacks the jugular and incites Lord Manwaring to divorce his hysterical wife. But Stillman astutely shows how even the stiffest propriety is rooted in humor, and how comedy is housed within the polite, flowery euphemisms of early 19th century manners. Just the smallest glances and pauses of lords and wives trying to obscure their distaste can provoke laughter. Even a child in the front row of the theater was giggling at the farce. If you can get a child to laugh at the subtleties of Austen, you’ve succeeded.

What Lady Susan successfully brings out is the inherent instability of the austere social orders surrounding Austen. Her infiltration and manipulation is reminiscent of the Marx Brothers, who were masters of recognizing structures of power and completely dismantling them. The tensions inherent in rigid systems of order — bureaucracy, government, morality, heteronormative love — invite destabilization, which thereby generates chaos and comedy. When marriages are centered on lineages and fortunes while genuine love — and heaven forbid, lust — are foregone or repressed, the process of courtship becomes ripe for disruption and humor. Like a vampire Lady Susan swoops into these families, generating a comic hysteria and emotional excess out of these families so anxious for their genealogy’s continuation. Lady Susan merely rolls her eyes at all this foolishness and admits the true drive behind all this fuss: money and sex.

Rating: 10/10

“Love and Friendship” is now playing at the Nugget Theaters at 4:40 p.m. and 7:00 p.m.

After 60-some film reviews for The Dartmouth, my reign of terror has finally ended. I began my career two years ago getting yelled in “Maleficent” for taking notes on my iPhone. Now I no longer have to take notes, and directors can rest easy knowing their films will no longer be submitted to my critical snobbery. Thank you to all my editors, as well as the readers for their own love and friendship and for making it to the last page of the newspaper each week to check out the latest melodramatic, formulaic garbage I decided to lambaste. I am thankful for the rich film community that Dartmouth and Hanover fostered. My corpus merely stands as a testament to the area’s vibrant cinema culture. Thank you to the Nugget for all the free tickets and snack packs and to the Hopkins Center for their incredible programming over the years. I will always have Hanover. Well now I’m getting formulaic. I’ll give this farewell a 7/10.