“Love and Friendship” is adapted from Jane Austen’s novella “Lady Susan.” Though not as well known or beloved as “Pride and Prejudice,” “Sense and Sensibility” or even “Emma,” this story is just as bright and funny, as it slyly pokes fun at several of its characters. It’s a marriage plot, but it’s less about grand gestures and declarations of love and more about a charismatic and charming woman’s ability to manipulate men — which is uncannily successful.
Directed by Whit Stillman, (“Damsels in Distress”) “Love and Friendship” follows Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale, “Absolutely Anything”) and her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark, “The Falling”) as they visit and stay with relatives; they’re in a precarious position financially after the death of Lady Susan’s husband. Lady Susan wishes her daughter to marry Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett, “Shadow Dancer”), a well-meaning but blithering idiot, for his wealth. Frederica is understandably reluctant and appeals to her mother’s sister-in-law Catherine (Emma Greenwell, “Dare to be Wild”), with whom they are staying, and Catherine’s brother Reginald (Xavier Samuel, “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse”). Lady Susan is disappointed in her daughter not only for disobeying her wishes but also for interrupting her own manipulations of Reginald, who is also wealthy and captivated by Lady Susan (to his family’s great distress).
Lady Susan often spends time with her American friend Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny, “American Horror Story”), who helps her in her machinations. Their conversations feel as if one could overhear them today, full of wry humor and poking fun at oblivious men, but that in no way means they don’t require your full attention. At one point, put out that others aren’t adhering to the plans she had set for them and some of her more dishonest behavior had been found out, Lady Susan complains to Alicia, “Facts are horrid things.”
Though there are some exceptions, “Love and Friendship” isn’t exactly a star-studded cast. Perhaps that is what gives it quiet, unassuming authenticity. The film is simultaneously genuine and curiously self-aware, thanks to sharp, witty writing and a waltzing score that seems to laugh along with you at the establishing shots of real estate. The aesthetic delights of the film (costumes, hair, etc.) don’t pull focus from anything else but rather help the actors feel and look completely at home in this 18th-century story.
The cast works effortlessly well together. Beckinsale and Bennett don’t have many scenes in which they interact alone, but they play each other up outstandingly, perspicacious genius and vacuous suitor both pursuing what they want.
By the end, four people have ended up coupled, but even the more virtuous pair can’t convince you that this story is romantic. While there are some shifty characters and a few bumbling husbands that make you laugh out loud — especially once you catch sight of their wives’ expression — Lady Susan is hero and villain and comic relief all at once. This story is hers. Stillman has crafted a tribute not only to Austen’s memory, but to some of her cleverest writing and funniest storytelling.