Based on Jane Austen’s Lady Susan, Love and Friendship won me over in the end. But I did wonder if it wasn’t too slight, derivative and possibly better as a play. It’s a stupid think to say — and wrong also –but for lack of a better way of putting it: I at first didn’t think it was cinematic enough (except for the explanatory subtitles at the beginning and in the letter -reading/writing scenes which structure the narrative). I thought it too talky. But then the film’s languid rhythms, its classic but slightly askew compositions and it’s tone – which a friend described as on the right side of arch – won me over. I did end up loving it. But I wasn’t sure I would until it ended.
Adrien Garvey has described Love and Friendship as a sketched-in heritage film, which I think describes it beautifully. It doesn’t offer the visual pleasures of the traditional heritage films such as A Room with a View (James Ivory, UK, 1985) or other Jane Austin adaptations: the sumptuousness of place (here the stately home is slightly run-down), costume (modest for the period, slightly worn, like the best clothes of those who can’t quite afford them) or setting: none of this is used as spectacle here. But then, to its credit, it also eschews the nostalgic tone of heritage in favour of a smarter, slightly more worldly and wittily cynical flavour. Unlike Chlōe Sevigny, who’s every appearance as Alicia Johnson seems to leap off the screen, Kate Beckinsale seems to lack charisma in the first scenes. But then her performance wins you over on merit: Her Lady Susan takes no relish in her wickedness; she doesn’t underline or make a show of it; all Beckinsale does simply becomes who the character is. It’s a shrewd, witty and understated performance. And then there’s James Fleet who steals every scene he’s in with mere intonation.
Love and Friendship is an elegant chamber piece that feels slight, echoey, thin and empty at the beginning but fills out, gets richer, more resonant, and more enjoyable as it unfolds. Very typical and very good Whit Stillman.