Nestled snuggly between the superheroes and raunchy comedies, occasionally summer gives us a nice little gem of a movie, and this year it comes in the form of Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship. Coming out of the theater, you half-expect a gentle snow to be falling while you chat with fellow theatergoers about the end-of-year Oscar race… but the dog days are underway, and the only Oscar talk involves Mr. Mayer’s famed wieners.
Just because the calendar says July, don’t be fooled–there’s still room for a beautifully-crafted film with a razor-sharp screenplay and witty performances. Adapted from one of Jane Austen’s earliest works, the epistolary Lady Susan, Love & Friendship is about as perfect a film as you could ask for, so long as you’re asking for a period comedy with corsets, bustles, and dialogue so drole that it takes a beat or two for the hilarity to hit you. (And it will hit you.)
Kate Beckinsale stars as the recently-widowed Lady Susan Vernon, a woman on a mission to find a man of means, even if it takes conniving, duplicity, and even a little dirty pool to make it happen. After being shunned from one estate for dipping her toes where they shouldn’t have been dipped, she makes haste to her brother-in-law Charles’ place in hopes of starting anew. There she meets Charles’ wife’s brother Reginald (Xavier Samuel), a worthy prospect. (And, yes, that makes him Susan’s brother-in-law’s brother-in-law, in true Austen fashion.)
Complicating things further is the arrival of Susan’s teenaged daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark), who Susan has promised to the deliciously idiotic Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett). Frederica wants nothing to do with him, however, leaving her devious mother to cook up a new scheme, aided by long-time American ex-pat friend Alicia (Chloë Sevigny).
Stillman, who first made waves back in 1990 with Metropolitan (before casting Beckinsale and Sevigny as best friends in 1998’s The Last Days of Disco) brings his trademark Woody Allen/Aaron Sorkin-ish dialogue back to theaters, aided by the, well, sense and sensibilities of Austen’s supreme wit. It’s nothing less than a match made in heaven, particularly in moments like the one we get as Lady Susan bemoans Alicia’s ill-suited husband as being “too old to be governable, too young to die”. It enough to make you wish Stillman would try his hand at other Austen works. Immediately.
Beckinsale, who hasn’t really been seen in theaters since she kicked Colin Farrell around in 2012’s Total Recall remake, is perfectly cast as Lady Susan. From the outset she seems to have been born to play the part, as she brings a (delightfully deceitful) charm and magnetism. It may be her best role yet, and it’s certainly among the best of the year so far.
Chances are, Love & Friendship will go largely unnoticed–particularly during this time of year, as people clamor for 3D explosions and mindless comedy–but anyone looking for a nice, gentle break will get it with one of the year’s smarter comedies. A rare treat, indeed.