Love & Friendship movie full length review - bowdlerized lesser Austen with fits of fun
While failing to reach the heights of earlier adaptations of Jane Austen novels, Love & Friendship, based on an early epistolary Austen novella, Lady Susan, does have a few laughs and charms to compensate for its incessant chattiness and some directorial missteps.
Written when she was nineteen, and at only fifty-nine pages in the edition I have, Lady Susan, while recognizably the work of Austen, lacks the deep wisdom and lived-in quality of novels like Emma (written when she was about forty) and does not rise much above the level of satire.
Love & Friendship has a sketchy, episodic feel that belies its epistolary roots. I had slight difficulty following the abrupt changes of scene at times (only explained in dialogue after the fact), a choppiness I'd attribute to either questionable editing or lack of coverage (the movie was shot quickly in February in Ireland on a small budget). Furthermore, I felt the rapid pace of the editing ill-suited a story that takes place entirely through written communications hand-delivered by carriage over what were then large distances.
Stillman stays reasonably faithful to Austen's characters, plot, and wording, but is not content with simple adaptation, and adds some of his own parody. I found this funny in parts (most of which were in the trailer), but more often was put off by the facile humor and characterization. Stillman's verbal footnoting of not very obscure references also took me out of the story; the same applies to self-deprecating jokes about Americans and Manhattan in-jokes. It seems that, in attempting to pander to what he perceived to be a skeptical audience, he lost at least this part of his captive audience (every Austen adaptation I've seen has left me wanting more, until now), while failing to win over the skeptics (the friend I saw it with struggled to stay awake).
But I don't wish to exaggerate: while I found most of the movie artificial, rushed, and uninvolving, there are stretches, especially in the latter half, where the actors are allowed more than a minute or two to act as an ensemble, without abrupt scene changes, ironic subtitles, or Manhattan in-jokes, and I started to develop some real empathy with the characters. But it was largely too little, too late.
The movie does have a good deal in its favor.
The costume design is stunning, and the locations and/or set design make the movie look like it had a far higher budget than it apparently did. The cinematography shows off all of this to great advantage, with lighting simultaneously convincingly realistic, on point, and luscious.
Beckinsale is well cast, especially given her performance twenty years ago as Emma Woodhouse, a character who bears a passing resemblance to Lady Susan - not to mention that Beckinsale was, like Lady Susan, the mother of a sixteen-year-old daughter at the time of filming. And her acting skill has improved noticeably in the last two decades.
Tom Bennett and Xavier Samuel acquit themselves admirably. While I am not in principle against American actors in English period pieces (my favorite Austen adaptation is the Gwyneth Paltrow Emma), I found Chloe Sevigny's presence jarring here. I can only conjecture that either someone felt Americans needed a proxy character in order to relate to the story, or else that Stillman couldn't resist inventing an excuse to slip in America jokes.
In summary, if you appreciate Whit Stillman's sense of humor, and are either a fan of Lady Susan or else appreciate Austen from a historical or post-feminist perspective, you will probably love this movie. If you're not into Austen or Stillman, this may put you to sleep. If, like me, you're a Stillman skeptic (I'm ambivalent on Metropolitan as well) and your love of Austen is conditional and based largely on her writing skill, it can be a mixed bag.
Without referring to the original novella, I'm left with a feeling vaguely similar to what I felt after watching Coppola's Marie Antoinette - some amusing moments, some pretty pictures, and not enough story or storytelling to tie them together.