Though the novels of Jane Austen positively drip with witticisms, catty descriptive asides and zingy ironies, their movie variations all too typically are inclined to soft-sell the comedy. Emma Thompson’s elegant adaptation of Sense and Sensibility was wry and realizing, although solely essentially the most hopeful of high-school English lecturers would argue for it as genuinely side-splitting; Joe Wright’s tackle Pride and Prejudice performed up swooning romance over barbed interaction. Both the Paltrow- and Taylor-Joy-starring iterations of Emma are gentle, pastel-hued baubles, however extra feathery than they’re genuinely humorous; the laughs solely got here with a rewrite as drastic as Amy Heckerling’s Clueless.
Love & Friendship, then, is a scrumptious rarity: an Austen interpretation taken on by a longtime, distinctive comedian film-maker, bent to his cockeyed sensibility even because it honours the zesty, slicing hilarity of the unique textual content. When it was introduced that Whit Stillman was adapting Austen’s comparatively obscure, posthumous revealed novella Lady Susan, the wedding appeared virtually too completely organized, even when Stillman is as Waspishly American as Austen was Waspishly English. Known for his ultra-arch, hyper-literate satires of preppy, privileged pockets of east coast society – from his Oscar-nominated debut Metropolitan to his peculiar spin on the campus comedy, Damsels in Distress – Stillman has one thing of Austen’s reward for smuggling razor-edged observations in silky formalities. To watch him work via her is to make you surprise how prime Preston Sturges or Billy Wilder may need tackled the creator.
In lieu of such hypotheticals, Love & Friendship will do very properly certainly. Released six years in the past now, it has since acquired the older-feeling patina of straightforward rewatchability; insufficiently seen and celebrated on the time, it deserves to turn out to be a comfort-watching commonplace. A corset comedy made with a springy screwball sensibility and the darkly venal undertow of Dangerous Liaisons, it’s, for my cash, the most effective Jane Austen movie made up to now.
That it achieves this by adapting one of many creator’s personal least important works is a testomony to Stillman’s resourcefulness as a author, in addition to the overall maxim that minor literature is usually higher served on display screen than main. A piece of juvenilia, however not revealed till a half-century after Austen’s demise, Lady Susan is an epistolary trifle that differs from her better-known novels in its anti-romantic outlook and cynical preoccupation with unhealthy behaviour gone largely unpunished. Its title character is a gleefully unscrupulous heroine and villainess in a single, irresistible in her self-serving wit and cleverness. A younger widow striving and seducing her means via the higher courses, she goals to each get the man and thwart The Man, utilizing her personal gormless daughter as a decoy if it will get her nearer to the prize.
If the e book’s letter-based construction revealed Lady Susan’s ethical dubiousness first-hand via her caustic, withering tone, Stillman’s movie fleshes out a wider world at her ft, warming her up slightly within the course of. On movie, she’s the tastiest of characters – queen bee, black widow and femme fatale, all in fabulous millinery besides – and a career-crowning function for Kate Beckinsale, who to that time had been languishing in a single nameless B-thriller and Underworld installment after one other. Love & Friendship performs on Beckinsale’s signature cut-glass hauteur, however lets her be messy and attractive beneath the serene floor: an English rose with racing sexual power and an unapologetically darkish coronary heart. She has a depraved means with a one-liner, too, lending an Austenite dignity to Stillman’s preppy quippiness: “What a shame you married Mr Johnson,” she observes to her American confidante Alicia, performed by Chloe Sevigny with a deadpan drollness that brings some trendy slacker power to those buttoned-up environment. “He’s too old to be governable and too young to die.”
Men are handled as punchlines all through Love & Friendship, none extra riotously than Sir James Martin, a dim, rich patsy who turns into an integral determine in Lady Susan’s social climbing technique – and who the British character actor Tom Bennett performs with elegant, clockwork-timed idiocy, guaranteeing that Beckinsale doesn’t get to strut off with the entire movie. The London Film Critics’ Circle handed well-deserved prizes to each actors; in any other case, this impeccable comedy of fine manners and really unhealthy behaviour went largely unnoticed by awards voters, proving that even intellectual literary diversifications should pay a worth for levity. No matter, for the reason that movie is already growing older fantastically: a Jane Austen movie made with palpable love for the supply, and a riotous confidence in its personal comedian voice.