Jane Austen is the consummate comedic chronicler of manners and mores among the 18th-century British gentry. Whit Stillman is the filmmaker still best-known for his 1990s trilogy about the trials and tribulations of the UHBs (urban haute bourgeoisie). Together, they form such a sparkling match that it makes perfect Austenian sense they would only find each other late into the third act of Stillman's career.
Of course, Austen's bibliography is thoroughly tilled ground for cinema. Each of the six novels published during her lifetime already has been adapted to the screen, some several times. Digging deep into Austen's notebooks for works published long after her death, Love & Friendship — which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and opens locally May 27 — takes the plot of her early epistolary novel Lady Susan, written when she was just 19, and borrows its title from an even earlier novel, Love & Freindship [sic], written when she was just 15.
But where several recent Austen adaptations have suffered from overly reverential treatments of the source material, Stillman appears reinvigorated by this challenge, producing his funniest and most thoroughly successful film since 1994's Barcelona. The dialogue — a mix of Austen originals and Stillman's own wry one-liners – crackles throughout. So does Kate Beckinsale as the diabolical Lady Susan Vernon, "the most accomplished flirt in all England." A recent, but not terribly distraught widow, Lady Susan wreaks havoc and homes wherever she goes, in her campaign to find well-appointed husbands both for herself and her 16-year-old daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark).
In the hands of another director or screenwriter, Susan's poor treatment and lack of regard for Frederica would mark her as a villain in desperate need of comeuppance. Stillman instead revels in the way she employs her charms to run circles around those too prim, too naïve or just plainly too stupid to counter her various ruses. These include her late husband's brother (played by Justin Edwards) and his wife (Shameless' Emma Greenwell), who take in Lady Susan and Frederica to their country manor, as well as a series of potential suitors, notably the young but dashing Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel) and the hilariously dimwitted Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), whom a title card informs us is "a bit of a rattle."
The film also reunites Beckinsale with Chloë Sevigny, her co-star from Stillman’s 1998 film The Last Days of Disco. Playing Lady Susan's American confidante, who must hide their friendship from a husband (Stephen Fry) who continually threatens to exile the family "back to Connecticut," Sevigny trades saucy gossip and quips with Beckinsale that evoke that earlier film, as if their characters from the 1970s were simply transposed to the 1790s.
As the market for mid-tempo guitar-based rock music has collapsed in recent years, a number of former rock artists (Darius Rucker, Jewel, Jon Bon Jovi) have successfully made the transition to country music. One wonders similarly if Stillman – noticing that studios simply aren't bankrolling the kinds of modest-budget, highbrow comedies (at least, those by anyone not named Woody Allen) that previously had been his stock in trade – is looking to make the transition to becoming a director of period pieces. If so, he's off to a wonderful start.