A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
"Love & Friendship" feels like it was inevitable. The director Whit Stillman adapting Jane Austen is one of those ideas that sounds like it's made up because it's so perfect, like Wes Anderson announcing that he's going to make an animated film about foxes based on a book by Roald Dahl. What's wonderful isn't just that he's doing it, but that doing it makes certain aspects of his talent official. You could even say it's a wonder that it didn't happen sooner, or that, in his own way, he's already been doing it for years.
Stillman's films, which include "Metropolitan," "Barcelona," "The Last Days of Disco" and "Damsels in Distress," are comedies of manners, about educated, often hyper-verbal people who are oblivious to how ridiculous they sound (even when discussing Austen's "Mansfield Park," as they do in "Metropolitan"). They pursue romantic partners that are wrong for them, suffer through relationships that are wrong for them, remain oblivious to better matches that are right in front of them. Throughout, the more brazen or ambitious characters run roughshod over people who have, well, manners. That describes a fair bit of Austen as well, although you might not necessarily know it from adaptations that concentrate on romance at the expense of comedy.
Stillman doesn't make that mistake. "Love & Friendship," about a scheming widow who tries to insinuate herself into a man's life, is based on a comparatively little-known and unfinished novella titled "Lady Susan" that wasn't published until after Austen's death. Most of the time, though, Austen-isms walk shoulder to shoulder with Stillman-isms so gracefully that it takes a moment to realize which author is likely speaking through these characters. It's a richly funny people-watching film, one that happens to contain possible romantic pairings.
Kate Beckinsale, so delightful in Stillman's "The Last Days of Disco," returns here as Lady Susan Vernon, who recently lost her husband and is determined to find a new one for herself as well as for her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark), whom Susan frankly does not seem to appreciate or even like. Her target is Reginald De Courcy (Xavier Samuel), whom she meets while visiting the estate of her in-laws.. As Susan circles the poor man like a hawk, she also tries to facilitate the union of Federica and the exuberantly thick-headed Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), even though Federica doesn't particularly care for him. Susan's confidant through all this is a Yankee, Alicia Johnson (Chloë Sevigny), who likes it in England and would really rather not go back to the states. That seems an increasing possibility as the movie goes on and Susan digs herself deeper into a pit of manipulation.