Charlie Lewis discovers that Love and Friendship is a sublimely directed piece of art, and a tribute to the works of Jane Austen.
A little while ago I was playing chess with a friend of mine. She is a far superior player, and I was quietly happy to have defied her as long as I had. Then, at the opposite end of the board from my king, she moved her bishop just a single square, and I realised, with a little thrill, that I was doomed. I just didn’t know how. Sure enough, three moves later the game was over. I was reminded of this watching Kate Beckinsale’s ravishing turn as Lady Susan Vernon in Whit Stillman’s Love and Friendship. She’s a born hustler, several steps ahead of everyone else, and a gifted improviser able to turn any situation to her advantage. Late in the film, two characters far less adept in the art of manipulation attempt to change her mind on a fairly serious matter. When it works, we’re all left wondering what she’s up to.
Lady Susan is described by other characters as a ‘determined and accomplished flirt’ capable of ‘captivating deceit’. We first meet her, recently widowed, leaving the Manwaring estate, having caused a scandal by doing, presumably, a little more than flirting with Lord Manwaring (described as a ‘divinely attractive man’ in the playful title cards that introduce every character). With nowhere else to go, Lady Susan travels to Churchill, the estate of her late husband’s brother and family – his suspicious wife Catherine (Emma Greenwell), and her Brother, Reginald Decourcy (Xavier Samuel). Lady Susan sets about reviving her fortunes and finding a wealthy suitor for her virtuous and reticent daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark), and perhaps herself in the bargain. The suitor she has in mind for Frederica is Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett). She describes him to her confidante Lady Johnson (played with detached amusement by Chloe Sevigny) as ‘Vastly rich and rather simple’ to which Johnson replies, with a martini dry smile, ‘ideal’.
‘Rather simple’ understates it – Sir Martin is an amiable, long winded imbecile, as only someone who has never known a moments discomfort in their life can be. He speaks as though everything he says is something he memorised, badly, a long time ago. Bennett’s performance is comic masterpiece. His Sir Martin is pure Dunning/Kruger effect, far too stupid to know how stupid he is. He is one of those performers that can make you laugh just reaching for a book. Indeed, what really sets Love and Friendship apart is how relentlessly funny it is – a review longer than this one could be dedicated solely to the flurry of cut glass witticisms that tumble through the film like the harp pieces that act as its main theme. Frederica is understandably unmoved by the thought of matrimony to this woolly buffoon, reserving her chaste glances for the beautiful, painfully upstanding Reginald. This does not suit Lady Susan, who compares her daughter’s ingratitude to that of the recently severed American Colony.
To go any further into the complications of the plot and their resolutions would become decidedly unwieldy, and more important, spoil the fun. Stillman’s direction is sublime – deft and witty, he effortlessly keeps the various strands of deception and manipulation employed by Lady Susan from blurring into one another. From the moment you are thrown into this world with its myriad characters and unfamiliar social norms, you are comfortable. You may not know all the relationships or rules for a while, but you do know you’re in good hands.
But the real and obvious star is Kate Beckinsale – her character is so callously self-involved and coldly manipulative as to be borderline evil, yet we like her, perhaps because she is merely the perfect expression of how to succeed in her world. Her machinations only work because everyone is so repressed and image conscious that no one can ever quite say what they think she’s done. And they are only necessary because this appears to be the best agency available to a woman of her times. It also works because of her weaponised allure. In a society where unthinkingly touching someone’s arm carries the same weight as a kiss, the arch of her eyebrows and knowing smirk stirs something in everyone she meets, and on its account they either hate her, or would do anything she asks.
Speaking about the film afterwards, my companion pointed out several times Lady Susan’s actions were not roguishly charming, but genuinely cruel and petty. I found myself employing some contrived logic to defend her. Later still, it occurred to me with a smile: I was another of Lady Susan’s dupes.